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Int J Food Microbiol. 2003 Dec 1;88(2-3):255-62.

Safety aspects of enterococci from the medical point of view.

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  • 1Institute of Medical Microbiology, University of Z├╝rich, Gloriastrasse 30/32, PO Box CH-8028 Zurich, Switzerland.


Enterococci occur in a remarkable array of environments. They can be found in soil, food, and water, and make up a significant portion of the normal gut flora of humans (10(5)-10(7)/g of stool) and animals. As other bacteria of the gut flora, enterococci can also cause infectious diseases. Most clinical isolates are Enterocococus faecalis, which account for 80-90% of clinical strains. Enterocococus faecium accounts for 5-10% of such isolates. Typical enterococcal infections occur in hospitalised patients with underlying conditions representing a wide spectrum of severity of illness and immune modulation. Enterococci today rank second to third in frequency among bacteria isolated from hospitalised patients. They are isolated from urinary tract infections, intra-abdominal and pelvic infections, bacteremias, wound and tissue infections, and endocarditis--often as part of a polymicrobial flora. Surprisingly, little is known about the factors that contribute to the ability of enterococci to cause infections. Many strains of E. faecalis produce a cytolysin (haemolysin) exhibiting tissue-damaging capacity. Further extracellular products often observed in clinical isolates are a proteinase (gelatinase), hyaluronidase, and extracellular superoxide. Furthermore, many of the clinical isolates possess the aggregation substance on the surface and an extracellular surface protein, both contributing to the adherence to eucaryotic cells. Some strains of E. faecalis, and many E. faecium strains are resistant to multiple antimicrobials. The ultimate role of all these factors in enterococcal pathogenicity remains to be determined. It was previously thought that enterococcal infections were endogenously acquired from the patient's own gut flora. A rather new concept that has emerged is that enterococcal disease is a two-stage process. There is an initial colonisation of the gastrointestinal tract by enterococcal strains possessing virulence traits and/or antibiotic resistance. Subsequently, this population spreads, often facilitated by antibiotic elimination of competitors. For a selected number of patients, there is subsequent tissue invasion from the gastrointestinal tract reservoir. From this concept, it can be deduced that enterococcal strains without virulence traits and antibiotic resistances exogenously transferred into the human gut via food products or probiotics will not represent any risk for immunocompetent individuals. In very severely immunocompromised patients, however, a risk for enterococcal disease by such strains cannot completely be excluded.

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