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Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. Jun 1997; 61(2): 136–169.
PMCID: PMC232605

Common themes in microbial pathogenicity revisited.

Abstract

Bacterial pathogens employ a number of genetic strategies to cause infection and, occasionally, disease in their hosts. Many of these virulence factors and their regulatory elements can be divided into a smaller number of groups based on the conservation of similar mechanisms. These common themes are found throughout bacterial virulence factors. For example, there are only a few general types of toxins, despite a large number of host targets. Similarly, there are only a few conserved ways to build the bacterial pilus and nonpilus adhesins used by pathogens to adhere to host substrates. Bacterial entry into host cells (invasion) is a complex mechanism. However, several common invasion themes exist in diverse microorganisms. Similarly, once inside a host cell, pathogens have a limited number of ways to ensure their survival, whether remaining within a host vacuole or by escaping into the cytoplasm. Avoidance of the host immune defenses is key to the success of a pathogen. Several common themes again are employed, including antigenic variation, camouflage by binding host molecules, and enzymatic degradation of host immune components. Most virulence factors are found on the bacterial surface or secreted into their immediate environment, yet virulence factors operate through a relatively small number of microbial secretion systems. The expression of bacterial pathogenicity is dependent upon complex regulatory circuits. However, pathogens use only a small number of biochemical families to express distinct functional factors at the appropriate time that causes infection. Finally, virulence factors maintained on mobile genetic elements and pathogenicity islands ensure that new strains of pathogens evolve constantly. Comprehension of these common themes in microbial pathogenicity is critical to the understanding and study of bacterial virulence mechanisms and to the development of new "anti-virulence" agents, which are so desperately needed to replace antibiotics.

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Selected References

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