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Infect Immun. 1994 Apr;62(4):1304-12.

Novel path to apoptosis: small transmembrane pores created by staphylococcal alpha-toxin in T lymphocytes evoke internucleosomal DNA degradation.

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  • 1Institute for Medical Microbiology, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany.


Peripheral-blood human T lymphocytes were treated with Staphylococcus aureus alpha-toxin. Membrane permeabilization was assessed by measuring efflux of K+ and Rb+ and influx of Na+, Ca2+, and propidium iodide. Cellular ATP and [3H]thymidine incorporation following lectin stimulation were measured as parameters for cell viability. Internucleosomal cleavage characteristic of programmed cell death was assessed by agarose gel electrophoresis and by quantifying low-molecular-weight, [3H]thymidine-labeled DNA fragments. Nanomolar concentrations of alpha-toxin evoked protracted, irreversible ATP depletion in both activated and resting T lymphocytes. Toxin-damaged cells also lost their ability to incorporate [3H]thymidine upon subsequent stimulation with phytohemagglutinin. These cells carried toxin hexamers, and their plasma membranes became permeable for monovalent ions but not for Ca2+ and propidium iodide. The permeabilization event was followed by internucleosomal DNA degradation characteristic of programmed cell death. Membranes of cells treated with high toxin doses (> 300 nM) became permeable to both Ca2+ and propidium iodide. In this case, ATP depletion occurred within minutes and no DNA degradation was observed. When cells were suspended in Na(+)-free buffer, alpha-toxin applied at low doses still bound and formed hexamers. However, these cells displayed neither DNA degradation nor loss of viability. The data indicate that formation of very small but not of large alpha-toxin pores may trigger programmed cell death in lymphocytes and that uncontrolled flux of Na+ ions may be an important event precipitating the suicide cascade.

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