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Microb Pathog. 1994 Sep;17(3):187-201.

Recovery of human fibroblasts from attack by the pore-forming alpha-toxin of Staphylococcus aureus.

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Institute of Medical Microbiology, University of Mainz, Germany.


When applied at low concentrations (< 10 micrograms/ml), staphylococcal alpha-toxin generates a small channel in keratinocyte and lymphocyte membranes that permits selective transmembrane flux of monovalent ions. Here we show that a moderate concentration (1-50 micrograms/ml) of alpha-toxin similarly produces a small pore in membranes of human fibroblasts. This process leads to rapid leakage of K+ and to a drop in cellular ATP to 10-20% of normal levels in 2 h. In the presence of medium supplemented with serum and at pH 7.4, the cells are able to recover from toxin attack, so that normal levels of K+ and ATP are reached after 6-8 h at 37 degrees C. The repair process is dependent on the presence of serum in the medium and is very sensitive towards pH. Decreases of pH in the medium to < or = 7.0 as well as increases to > or = 7.8 causes the repair mechanism to fail. The fate of cell-bound toxin molecules was investigated by using a radiolabelled tracer and by immunological detection of toxin exposed at the cell surface. The results indicated that 50-70% of the toxin was shed from cell membranes. However, there was no clear correlation between shedding and recovery, and shedding was also observed in cells that died at pH 7.8. Shedding was not decisive for repair, since cells that had recovered from toxin attack continued to carry 30-40% of initially bound toxin on their cell surface. Blockade of Na+/K(+)-ATPases with ouabain evoked similar kinetics of K(+)-depletion in control cells, compared with cells that had just recuperated from toxin attack and that still carried 30-40% alpha-toxin on their surface. We therefore tentatively concluded that repair of alpha-toxin lesions was due to closure of small pores, rather than from compensation of membrane leaks by up-regulation of Na+/K(+)-ATPase activity. We speculate that repair of small membrane lesions may extend to other agents that produce channels of similar nature in nucleated cells. Larger pores created by E. coli hemolysin or streptolysin O, both of which form larger functional transmembrane lesions, could not be repaired by fibroblasts.

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