Bacterial Toxin Terminology

By | July 23, 2018

By: Mary N. Wessling, Ph.D. ELS

In this blog we will unravel the terminology describing bacterial toxins. In general, there are at least three ways that bacterial toxins are described in the literature:

  • by their biological designation—the genus and/or species from which they come
  • by the origin of the toxin, either as innate to the bacterial structure or released by the bacterium into surrounding body fluids
  • by the body part that is damaged by the toxin

Below are examples of each:

Biological designation

When described by their biological designation a part of the genus or species name is used for the toxin. For example: Clostridium tetani produces Tetanus toxin and Corynebacterium diphtheriae produces Diphtheria toxin.

Origin of the toxin

Exotoxins (e.g. polypeptides) are toxins released by a cell, whereas endotoxins (e.g. lipopolysaccharides) are an integral part of the bacterial cell wall.

Body part damaged by the toxin

Bacteria may cause disease through their toxins that enter the body via the respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, genital tract, and the skin. Enterotoxins mostly affect the gastrointestinal tract. “Entero” comes from the Greek word “enteron” meaning intestine.

Bacterial enterotoxins include examples of exotoxins produced by some strains of Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) and Escherichia coli (E. coli).Staphylococcal enterotoxin acts on intestinal neurons to induce vomiting; E. coli producing Shiga toxin causes serious dysentery and can lead to hemorrhagic diarrhea and kidney failure.

You will also see other terms used to designate toxins…

Superantigens: toxins that cause over-reaction

Antigens are characterized by their ability to activate T-cells and other immune system cells; while the T-cell response is a normal part of the immune process, over-activation of T-cells can cause an inflammatory response that can result in shock and multiple organ failure.

Pore-forming toxins that open host cell membranes

Pore-forming toxins (PFT) are toxin proteins with the ability to spontaneously self-assemble forming transmembrane pores in the membrane of target cells. Staphylococcal alpha toxin, also known as alpha-haemolysin, makes specific pores in target cells which are part of the pathology of infection and a valuable tool in construction of nanopores. Tetanolysin is another pore forming toxin produced by C. tetani which can make cells permeable to materials for experimentation.

Intracellular toxins

These toxins have two-part structures and are termed AB toxins. The A stands for “active”, the B for “binding”, for the ways that the two structures cooperatively cause cell damage. In most cases, the B structural element attaches to the cell membrane and provides an entry point for the other part, the A-enzyme component that causes damage to the inside of the cell through its enzymatic activity.

Some AB toxins have more than one B moiety: for example, the cholera toxin has five B proteins that provide entry for the A moiety, so it is designated AB5. The A moiety is initially a coiled chain but once inside the cell it uncoils, where its enzymatic activity kills the enteric cell.

Ligand-receptor interactions

The actions of exotoxins and endotoxins depend on a process whereby a part of their molecular structure, a ligand, can bind or otherwise interact with a structure on the host cell being attacked, a receptor. Thus, this ligand–receptor interaction is crucial to most diseases produced by bacterial toxins.

Lethal dose 50%

Bacteria cause disease by toxin production, invasion and inflammation. All toxins damage or disrupt the functions of the host cells. The term that describes the level of danger presented to the host by a toxin is “Lethal Dose 50%”, abbreviated LD50; the lower the LD50, the lower the amount of toxin to cause death.

 

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