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Mini Rev Med Chem. 2009 Jun;9(7):820-8.

Bacterial toxins: an overview on bacterial proteases and their action as virulence factors.

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Biochemistry and Biophysics Laboratory, Butantan Institute, São Paulo, Brazil.


Bacterial pathogenicity is a result of a combination of factors, including resistance to environmental threats and to the host's defenses, growth capability, localization in the host, tissue specificity, resource obtaining mechanisms and the bacterium's own defenses to aggression. A variety of bacterial components, often specific to each strain, are involved in the microorganism's survival, adhesion and growth in the host. Many of them are harmful and, therefore, are called virulence factors. The effects caused by the virulence factors determine the degree of aggressivity of the strain. In many cases the virulence factors are secreted proteins or enzymes, sometimes performing very specific functions. The enzymatic activity is directed to specific proteins from cell membranes, synaptic vesicle fusion proteins, among other important targets. One of the most toxic bacterial proteins is secreted by Clostridium botulinum, targeted to synaptic vesicle fusion proteins, cleaving them with a zinc-metalloprotease activity, which results in severe neurotoxic effects with a lethal dose as low as eight nanograms per kilogram of body weight. The tetanus neurotoxin acts in a similar way but is less active and Bacillus anthracis also presents a potent metalloprotease activity. In this work we describe a selection of these specially interesting and important bacterial proteins and proteases, stressing their relevance in the pathological process and in medical studies.

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