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J Biol Chem. 2009 Jan 9;284(2):862-71. doi: 10.1074/jbc.M804632200. Epub 2008 Nov 11.

Streptolysin O promotes group A Streptococcus immune evasion by accelerated macrophage apoptosis.

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Department of Pediatrics, Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program, Laboratory of Signal Transduction, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093, USA.


Group A Streptococcus (GAS) is a leading human bacterial pathogen capable of producing invasive infections even in previously healthy individuals. As frontline components of host innate defense, macrophages play a key role in control and clearance of GAS infections. We find GAS induces rapid, dose-dependent apoptosis of primary and cultured macrophages and neutrophils. The cell death pathway involves apoptotic caspases, is partly dependent on caspase-1, and requires GAS internalization by the phagocyte. Analysis of GAS virulence factor mutants, heterologous expression, and purified toxin studies identified the pore-forming cytolysin streptolysin O (SLO) as necessary and sufficient for the apoptosis-inducing phenotype. SLO-deficient GAS mutants induced less macrophage apoptosis in vitro and in vivo, allowed macrophage cytokine secretion, and were less virulent in a murine systemic infection model. Ultrastructural evidence of mitochondrial membrane remodeling, coupled with loss of mitochondrial depolarization and cytochrome c release, suggests a direct attack of the toxin initiates the intrinsic apoptosis pathway. A general caspase inhibitor blocked SLO-induced apoptosis and enhanced macrophage killing of GAS. We conclude that accelerated, caspase-dependent macrophage apoptosis induced by the pore-forming cytolysin SLO contributes to GAS immune evasion and virulence.

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