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Microbiol Rev. Dec 1991; 55(4): 733–751.
PMCID: PMC372845

Alpha-toxin of Staphylococcus aureus.


Alpha-toxin, the major cytotoxic agent elaborated by Staphylococcus aureus, was the first bacterial exotoxin to be identified as a pore former. The protein is secreted as a single-chain, water-soluble molecule of Mr 33,000. At low concentrations (less than 100 nM), the toxin binds to as yet unidentified, high-affinity acceptor sites that have been detected on a variety of cells including rabbit erythrocytes, human platelets, monocytes and endothelial cells. At high concentrations, the toxin additionally binds via nonspecific absorption to lipid bilayers; it can thus damage both cells lacking significant numbers of the acceptor and protein-free artificial lipid bilayers. Membrane damage occurs in both cases after membrane-bound toxin molecules collide via lateral diffusion to form ring-structured hexamers. The latter insert spontaneously into the lipid bilayer to form discrete transmembrane pores of effective diameter 1 to 2 nm. A hypothetical model is advanced in which the pore is lined by amphiphilic beta-sheets, one surface of which interacts with lipids whereas the other repels apolar membrane constitutents to force open an aqueous passage. The detrimental effects of alpha-toxin are due not only to the death of susceptible targets, but also to the presence of secondary cellular reactions that can be triggered via Ca2+ influx through the pores. Well-studied phenomena include the stimulation of arachidonic acid metabolism, triggering of granule exocytosis, and contractile dysfunction. Such processes cause profound long-range disturbances such as development of pulmonary edema and promotion of blood coagulation.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)

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