Although bacteria use different iron compounds in vitro, the possibility that microbes distinguish between these iron sources during infection has hitherto not been examined. We applied stable isotope labeling to detect source-specific iron by mass spectrometry and show that Staphylococcus aureus preferentially imports heme iron over transferrin iron. By combining this approach with computational genome analysis, we identified hts (heme transport system), a gene cluster that promotes preferred heme iron import by S. aureus. Heme iron scavenging by means of hts is required for staphylococcal pathogenesis in animal hosts, indicating that heme iron is the preferred iron source during the initiation of infection.
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