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12.3: Virulence Factors in Infection

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  • Learning Objectives

    • Explain how virulence factors contribute to signs and symptoms of infectious disease
    • Differentiate between endotoxins and exotoxins
    • Describe and differentiate between various types of exotoxins
    • Describe virulence factors unique to fungi and parasites
    • Compare virulence factors of fungi and bacteria
    • Explain the difference between protozoan parasites and helminths
    • Describe how helminths evade the host immune system
    • Describe the mechanisms viruses use for adhesion and antigenic variation

    In the previous section, we explained that some pathogens are more virulent than others. This is due to the unique virulence factors produced by individual pathogens, which determine the extent and severity of disease they may cause. A pathogen’s virulence factors are encoded by genes that can be identified. When genes encoding virulence factors are inactivated, virulence in the pathogen is diminished. In this section, we examine various types and specific examples of virulence factors and how they contribute to each step of pathogenesis.

    Virulence Factors for Adhesion

    As discussed in the previous section, the first two steps in pathogenesis are exposure and adhesion. Recall that an adhesin is a structure, such as a protein or glycoprotein, found on the surface of a pathogen that attaches to receptors on the host cell. Adhesins are found on bacterial, viral, fungal, and protozoan pathogens. One example of a bacterial adhesin is type 1 fimbrial adhesin, a molecule found on the tips of fimbriae of enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC). Recall that fimbriae are hairlike protein bristles on the cell surface. Type 1 fimbrial adhesin allows the fimbriae of ETEC cells to attach to the mannose glycans expressed on intestinal epithelial cells. Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) lists common adhesins found in some of the pathogens we have discussed or will be seeing later in this chapter.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Some Bacterial Adhesins and Their Host Attachment Sites
    Pathogen Disease   Adhesin Attachment Site
    Streptococcus pyogenes Strep throat   Protein F Respiratory epithelial cells
    Streptococcus mutans Dental caries   Adhesin P1 Teeth
    Neisseria gonorrhoeae Gonorrhea   Type IV pili Urethral epithelial cells
    Enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC) Traveler’s diarrhea   Type 1 fimbriae Intestinal epithelial cells
    Vibrio cholerae Cholera   N-methylphenylalanine pili Intestinal epithelial cells

    Clinical Focus: part 3

    The presence of bacteria in Michael’s blood is a sign of infection, since blood is normally sterile. There is no indication that the bacteria entered the blood through an injury. Instead, it appears the portal of entry was the gastrointestinal route. Based on Michael’s symptoms, the results of his blood test, and the fact that Michael was the only one in the family to partake of the hot dogs, the physician suspects that Michael is suffering from a case of listeriosis.

    Listeria monocytogenes, the facultative intracellular pathogen that causes listeriosis, is a common contaminant in ready-to-eat foods such as lunch meats and dairy products. Once ingested, these bacteria invade intestinal epithelial cells and translocate to the liver, where they grow inside hepatic cells. Listeriosis is fatal in about one in five normal healthy people, and mortality rates are slightly higher in patients with pre-existing conditions that weaken the immune response. A cluster of virulence genes encoded on a pathogenicity island is responsible for the pathogenicity of L. monocytogenes. These genes are regulated by a transcriptional factor known as peptide chain release factor 1 (PrfA). One of the genes regulated by PrfA is hyl, which encodes a toxin known as listeriolysin O (LLO), which allows the bacterium to escape vacuoles upon entry into a host cell. A second gene regulated by PrfA is actA, which encodes for a surface protein known as actin assembly-inducing protein (ActA). ActA is expressed on the surface of Listeria and polymerizes host actin. This enables the bacterium to produce actin tails, move around the cell’s cytoplasm, and spread from cell to cell without exiting into the extracellular compartment.

    Michael’s condition has begun to worsen. He is now experiencing a stiff neck and hemiparesis (weakness of one side of the body). Concerned that the infection is spreading, the physician decides to conduct additional tests to determine what is causing these new symptoms.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    1. What kind of pathogen causes listeriosis, and what virulence factors contribute to the signs and symptoms Michael is experiencing?
    2. Is it likely that the infection will spread from Michael’s blood? If so, how might this explain his new symptoms?

    Bacterial Exoenzymes and Toxins as Virulence Factors

    After exposure and adhesion, the next step in pathogenesis is invasion, which can involve enzymes and toxins. Many pathogens achieve invasion by entering the bloodstream, an effective means of dissemination because blood vessels pass close to every cell in the body. The downside of this mechanism of dispersal is that the blood also includes numerous elements of the immune system. Various terms ending in –emia are used to describe the presence of pathogens in the bloodstream. The presence of bacteria in blood is called bacteremia. Bacteremia involving pyogens (pus-forming bacteria) is called pyemia. When viruses are found in the blood, it is called viremia. The term toxemia describes the condition when toxins are found in the blood. If bacteria are both present and multiplying in the blood, this condition is called septicemia.

    Patients with septicemia are described as septic, which can lead to shock, a life-threatening decrease in blood pressure (systolic pressure <90 mm Hg) that prevents cells and organs from receiving enough oxygen and nutrients. Some bacteria can cause shock through the release of toxins (virulence factors that can cause tissue damage) and lead to low blood pressure. Gram-negative bacteria are engulfed by immune system phagocytes, which then release tumor necrosis factor, a molecule involved in inflammation and fever. Tumor necrosis factor binds to blood capillaries to increase their permeability, allowing fluids to pass out of blood vessels and into tissues, causing swelling, or edema(Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). With high concentrations of tumor necrosis factor, the inflammatory reaction is severe and enough fluid is lost from the circulatory system that blood pressure decreases to dangerously low levels. This can have dire consequences because the heart, lungs, and kidneys rely on normal blood pressure for proper function; thus, multi-organ failure, shock, and death can occur.

    A picture of a person with a swollen right hand.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): This patient has edema in the tissue of the right hand. Such swelling can occur when bacteria cause the release of pro-inflammatory molecules from immune cells and these molecules cause an increased permeability of blood vessels, allowing fluid to escape the bloodstream and enter tissue.


    Some pathogens produce extracellular enzymes, or exoenzymes, that enable them to invade host cells and deeper tissues. Exoenzymes have a wide variety of targets. Some general classes of exoenzymes and associated pathogens are listed in Table \(\PageIndex{2}\). Each of these exoenzymes functions in the context of a particular tissue structure to facilitate invasion or support its own growth and defend against the immune system. For example, hyaluronidase S, an enzyme produced by pathogens like Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pyogenes, and Clostridium perfringens, degrades the glycoside hylauronan (hyaluronic acid), which acts as an intercellular cement between adjacent cells in connective tissue (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). This allows the pathogen to pass through the tissue layers at the portal of entry and disseminate elsewhere in the body (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)).

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\): Some Classes of Exoenzymes and Their Targets
    Class Example Function
    Glycohydrolases Hyaluronidase S in Staphylococcus aureus Degrades hyaluronic acid that cements cells together to promote spreading through tissues
    Nucleases DNAse produced by S. aureus Degrades DNA released by dying cells (bacteria and host cells) that can trap the bacteria, thus promoting spread
    Phospholipases Phospholipase C of Bacillus anthracis Degrades phospholipid bilayer of host cells, causing cellular lysis, and degrade membrane of phagosomes to enable escape into the cytoplasm
    Proteases Collagenase in Clostridium perfringens Degrades collagen in connective tissue to promote spread
    a) A diagram of epithelial cells that are connected along their membranes. Hyaluronidases enter at these connection points. B) after the hyaluronidases break down the connections between the cells, bacteria can flow through the openings.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): (a) Hyaluronan is a polymer found in the layers of epidermis that connect adjacent cells. (b) Hyaluronidase produced by bacteria degrades this adhesive polymer in the extracellular matrix, allowing passage between cells that would otherwise be blocked.

    Pathogen-produced nucleases, such as DNAse produced by S. aureus, degrade extracellular DNA as a means of escape and spreading through tissue. As bacterial and host cells die at the site of infection, they lyse and release their intracellular contents. The DNA chromosome is the largest of the intracellular molecules, and masses of extracellular DNA can trap bacteria and prevent their spread. S. aureus produces a DNAse to degrade the mesh of extracellular DNA so it can escape and spread to adjacent tissues. This strategy is also used by S. aureus and other pathogens to degrade and escape webs of extracellular DNA produced by immune system phagocytes to trap the bacteria.

    Enzymes that degrade the phospholipids of cell membranes are called phospholipases. Their actions are specific in regard to the type of phospholipids they act upon and where they enzymatically cleave the molecules. The pathogen responsible for anthrax, B. anthracis, produces phospholipase C. When B. anthracis is ingested by phagocytic cells of the immune system, phospholipase C degrades the membrane of the phagosome before it can fuse with the lysosome, allowing the pathogen to escape into the cytoplasm and multiply. Phospholipases can also target the membrane that encloses the phagosome within phagocytic cells. As described earlier in this chapter, this is the mechanism used by intracellular pathogens such as L. monocytogenes and Rickettsia to escape the phagosome and multiply within the cytoplasm of phagocytic cells. The role of phospholipases in bacterial virulence is not restricted to phagosomal escape. Many pathogens produce phospholipases that act to degrade cell membranes and cause lysis of target cells. These phospholipases are involved in lysis of red blood cells, white blood cells, and tissue cells.

    Bacterial pathogens also produce various protein-digesting enzymes, or proteases. Proteases can be classified according to their substrate target (e.g., serine proteases target proteins with the amino acid serine) or if they contain metals in their active site (e.g., zinc metalloproteases contain a zinc ion, which is necessary for enzymatic activity).

    One example of a protease that contains a metal ion is the exoenzyme collagenase. Collagenase digests collagen, the dominant protein in connective tissue. Collagen can be found in the extracellular matrix, especially near mucosal membranes, blood vessels, nerves, and in the layers of the skin. Similar to hyaluronidase, collagenase allows the pathogen to penetrate and spread through the host tissue by digesting this connective tissue protein. The collagenase produced by the gram-positive bacterium Clostridium perfringens, for example, allows the bacterium to make its way through the tissue layers and subsequently enter and multiply in the blood (septicemia). C. perfringens then uses toxins and a phospholipase to cause cellular lysis and necrosis. Once the host cells have died, the bacterium produces gas by fermenting the muscle carbohydrates. The widespread necrosis of tissue and accompanying gas are characteristic of the condition known as gas gangrene (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)).

    A diagram of a tube labeled lumen of blood vessel lined by cells labeled endothelial cells. Outside he cells is dense irregular connective tissue. Collagenase is shown as small dots that break up the connections between the cells. A micrograph of the dense connective tissue shows many red lines making a meshwork.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The illustration depicts a blood vessel with a single layer of endothelial cells surrounding the lumen and dense connective tissue (shown in red) surrounding the endothelial cell layer. Collagenase produced by C. perfringens degrades the collagen between the endothelial cells, allowing the bacteria to enter the bloodstream. (credit illustration: modification of work by Bruce Blaus; credit micrograph: Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)


    In addition to exoenzymes, certain pathogens are able to produce toxins, biological poisons that assist in their ability to invade and cause damage to tissues. The ability of a pathogen to produce toxins to cause damage to host cells is called toxigenicity.

    Toxins can be categorized as endotoxins or exotoxins. The lipopolysaccharide (LPS) found on the outer membrane of gram-negative bacteria is called endotoxin (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)). During infection and disease, gram-negative bacterial pathogens release endotoxin either when the cell dies, resulting in the disintegration of the membrane, or when the bacterium undergoes binary fission. The lipid component of endotoxin, lipid A, is responsible for the toxic properties of the LPS molecule. Lipid A is relatively conserved across different genera of gram-negative bacteria; therefore, the toxic properties of lipid A are similar regardless of the gram-negative pathogen. In a manner similar to that of tumor necrosis factor, lipid A triggers the immune system’s inflammatory response. If the concentration of endotoxin in the body is low, the inflammatory response may provide the host an effective defense against infection; on the other hand, high concentrations of endotoxin in the blood can cause an excessive inflammatory response, leading to a severe drop in blood pressure, multi-organ failure, and death.

    A long chain of O antigens is drawn as various geometric shapes in a long row. Next is a core; a shorter region of similar shapes. Next is 2 circles labeled lipid A. Each of these has 2 or 3 long wavy lines projecting from them.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Lipopolysaccharide is composed of lipid A, a core glycolipid, and an O-specific polysaccharide side chain. Lipid A is the toxic component that promotes inflammation and fever.

    A classic method of detecting endotoxin is by using the Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) test. In this procedure, the blood cells (amebocytes) of the horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) is mixed with a patient’s serum. The amebocytes will react to the presence of any endotoxin. This reaction can be observed either chromogenically (color) or by looking for coagulation (clotting reaction) to occur within the serum. An alternative method that has been used is an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) that uses antibodies to detect the presence of endotoxin.

    Unlike the toxic lipid A of endotoxin, exotoxins are protein molecules that are produced by a wide variety of living pathogenic bacteria. Although some gram-negative pathogens produce exotoxins, the majority are produced by gram-positive pathogens. Exotoxins differ from endotoxin in several other key characteristics, summarized in Table \(\PageIndex{3}\). In contrast to endotoxin, which stimulates a general systemic inflammatory response when released, exotoxins are much more specific in their action and the cells they interact with. Each exotoxin targets specific receptors on specific cells and damages those cells through unique molecular mechanisms. Endotoxin remains stable at high temperatures, and requires heating at 121 °C (250 °F) for 45 minutes to inactivate. By contrast, most exotoxins are heat labile because of their protein structure, and many are denatured (inactivated) at temperatures above 41 °C (106 °F). As discussed earlier, endotoxin can stimulate a lethal inflammatory response at very high concentrations and has a measured LD50 of 0.24 mg/kg. By contrast, very small concentrations of exotoxins can be lethal. For example, botulinum toxin, which causes botulism, has an LD50 of 0.000001 mg/kg (240,000 times more lethal than endotoxin).

    Table \(\PageIndex{3}\): Comparison of Endotoxin and Exotoxins Produced by Bacteria
    Characteristic Endotoxin Exotoxin
    Source Gram-negative bacteria Gram-positive (primarily) and gram-negative bacteria
    Composition Lipid A component of lipopolysaccharide Protein
    Effect on host General systemic symptoms of inflammation and fever Specific damage to cells dependent upon receptor-mediated targeting of cells and specific mechanisms of action
    Heat stability Heat stable Most are heat labile, but some are heat stable
    LD50 High Low

    The exotoxins can be grouped into three categories based on their target: intracellular targeting, membrane disrupting, and superantigens. Table \(\PageIndex{4}\) provides examples of well-characterized toxins within each of these three categories.

    Table \(\PageIndex{4}\): Some Common Exotoxins and Associated Bacterial Pathogens
    Category Example Pathogen Mechanism and Disease
    Intracellular-targeting toxins Cholera toxin Vibrio cholerae Activation of adenylate cyclase in intestinal cells, causing increased levels of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) and secretion of fluids and electrolytes out of cell, causing diarrhea
    Tetanus toxin Clostridium teta ni Inhibits the release of inhibitory neurotransmitters in the central nervous system, causing spastic paralysis
    Botulinum toxin Clostridium botulinum Inhibits release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from neurons, resulting in flaccid paralysis
    Diphtheria toxin Corynebacterium diphtheriae Inhibition of protein synthesis, causing cellular death
    Membrane-disrupting toxins Streptolysin Streptococcus pyogenes Proteins that assemble into pores in cell membranes, disrupting their function and killing the cell
    Pneumolysin Streptococcus pneumoniae
    Alpha-toxin Staphylococcus aureus
    Alpha-toxin Clostridium perfringens Phospholipases that degrade cell membrane phospholipids, disrupting membrane function and killing the cell
    Phospholipase C Pseudomonas aeruginosa
    Beta-toxin Staphylococcus aureus
    Superantigens Toxic shock syndrome toxin Staphylococcus aureus Stimulates excessive activation of immune system cells and release of cytokines (chemical mediators) from immune system cells. Life-threatening fever, inflammation, and shock are the result.
    Streptococcal mitogenic exotoxin Streptococcus pyogenes
    Streptococcal pyrogenic toxins Streptococcus pyogenes

    The intracellular targeting toxins comprise two components: A for activity and B for binding. Thus, these types of toxins are known as A-B exotoxins (Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\)). The B component is responsible for the cellular specificity of the toxin and mediates the initial attachment of the toxin to specific cell surface receptors. Once the A-B toxin binds to the host cell, it is brought into the cell by endocytosis and entrapped in a vacuole. The A and B subunits separate as the vacuole acidifies. The A subunit then enters the cell cytoplasm and interferes with the specific internal cellular function that it targets.

    a) Diagram of how the A-B toxin works. The B subunit binds to a cellular receptor on the cell membrane. The A subunit is bound to the B subunit at this point. The cell engulfs the toxins into a vacuole. Inside the vacuole, which is acidic, the a subunit dissociates and escapes into the cytoplasm
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): (a) In A-B toxins, the B component binds to the host cell through its interaction with specific cell surface receptors. (b) The toxin is brought in through endocytosis. (c) Once inside the vacuole, the A component (active component) separates from the B component and the A component gains access to the cytoplasm. (credit: modification of work by “Biology Discussion Forum”/YouTube)

    Four unique examples of A-B toxins are the diphtheria, cholera, botulinum, and tetanus toxins. The diphtheria toxin is produced by the gram-positive bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae, the causative agent of nasopharyngeal and cutaneous diphtheria. After the A subunit of the diphtheria toxin separates and gains access to the cytoplasm, it facilitates the transfer of adenosine diphosphate (ADP)-ribose onto an elongation-factor protein (EF-2) that is needed for protein synthesis. Hence, diphtheria toxin inhibits protein synthesis in the host cell, ultimately killing the cell (Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\)).

    A diagram of the mechanism of diphtheria toxin. On the outside is a membrane with the B subunit attached. Inside is the A subunit binding with NAD. This block EF-2 by binding ADP-ribose. The diagram also shows mRNA bound to a ribosome and protein being made. The A subunit causes elongation of  the protein to stop.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): The mechanism of the diphtheria toxin inhibiting protein synthesis. The A subunit inactivates elongation factor 2 by transferring an ADP-ribose. This stops protein elongation, inhibiting protein synthesis and killing the cell.

    Cholera toxin is an enterotoxin produced by the gram-negative bacterium Vibrio cholerae and is composed of one A subunit and five B subunits. The mechanism of action of the cholera toxin is complex. The B subunits bind to receptors on the intestinal epithelial cell of the small intestine. After gaining entry into the cytoplasm of the epithelial cell, the A subunit activates an intracellular G protein. The activated G protein, in turn, leads to the activation of the enzyme adenyl cyclase, which begins to produce an increase in the concentration of cyclic AMP (a secondary messenger molecule). The increased cAMP disrupts the normal physiology of the intestinal epithelial cells and causes them to secrete excessive amounts of fluid and electrolytes into the lumen of the intestinal tract, resulting in severe “rice-water stool” diarrhea characteristic of cholera.

    Botulinum toxin (also known as botox) is a neurotoxin produced by the gram-positive bacterium Clostridium botulinum. It is the most acutely toxic substance known to date. The toxin is composed of a light A subunit and heavy protein chain B subunit. The B subunit binds to neurons to allow botulinum toxin to enter the neurons at the neuromuscular junction. The A subunit acts as a protease, cleaving proteins involved in the neuron’s release of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter molecule. Normally, neurons release acetylcholine to induce muscle fiber contractions. The toxin’s ability to block acetylcholine release results in the inhibition of muscle contractions, leading to muscle relaxation. This has the potential to stop breathing and cause death. Because of its action, low concentrations of botox are used for cosmetic and medical procedures, including the removal of wrinkles and treatment of overactive bladder.

    Another neurotoxin is tetanus toxin, which is produced by the gram-positive bacterium Clostridium tetani. This toxin also has a light A subunit and heavy protein chain B subunit. Unlike botulinum toxin, tetanus toxin binds to inhibitory interneurons, which are responsible for release of the inhibitory neurotransmitters glycine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Normally, these neurotransmitters bind to neurons at the neuromuscular junction, resulting in the inhibition of acetylcholine release. Tetanus toxin inhibits the release of glycine and GABA from the interneuron, resulting in permanent muscle contraction. The first symptom is typically stiffness of the jaw (lockjaw). Violent muscle spasms in other parts of the body follow, typically culminating with respiratory failure and death. Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\) shows the actions of both botulinum and tetanus toxins.

    Botulinum toxin causes flaccid paralysis and stops muscle contraction. The diagram shows that the normal mechanism has acetylcholine released at the axon terminal. The acetylcholine then binds to receptors on the membrane of a muscle cell. The abnormal mechanism – botulinum toxin blocks the release of acetylcholine stopping muscle contraction. Tetanus toxin causes spastic paralysis; uncontrollable muscle contraction. The normal mechanism shows glycine and GABA released from one axon terminal and binding to receptors on another axon terminal. This causes acetylcholine to remain in the vesicles and not bind to the receptors on the muscle cell. In the abnormal mechanism tetanus toxin prevents the release of glycine and GABA. Therefore acetylcholine is released and binds to receptors on the muscle. This prevents the relaxation of muscles.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Mechanisms of botulinum and tetanus toxins. (credit micrographs: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

    Membrane-disrupting toxins affect cell membrane function either by forming pores or by disrupting the phospholipid bilayer in host cell membranes. Two types of membrane-disrupting exotoxins are hemolysins and leukocidins, which form pores in cell membranes, causing leakage of the cytoplasmic contents and cell lysis. These toxins were originally thought to target red blood cells (erythrocytes) and white blood cells (leukocytes), respectively, but we now know they can affect other cells as well. The gram-positive bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes produces streptolysins, water-soluble hemolysins that bind to the cholesterol moieties in the host cell membrane to form a pore. The two types of streptolysins, O and S, are categorized by their ability to cause hemolysis in erythrocytes in the absence or presence of oxygen. Streptolysin O is not active in the presence of oxygen, whereas streptolysin S is active in the presence of oxygen. Other important pore-forming membrane-disrupting toxins include alpha toxin of Staphylococcus aureus and pneumolysin of Streptococcus pneumoniae.

    Bacterial phospholipases are membrane-disrupting toxins that degrade the phospholipid bilayer of cell membranes rather than forming pores. We have already discussed the phospholipases associated with B. anthracis, L. pneumophila, and Rickettsia species that enable these bacteria to effect the lysis of phagosomes. These same phospholipases are also hemolysins. Other phospholipases that function as hemolysins include the alpha toxin of Clostridium perfringens, phospholipase C of P. aeruginosa, and beta toxin of Staphylococcus aureus.

    Some strains of S. aureus also produce a leukocidin called Panton-Valentine leukocidin (PVL). PVL consists of two subunits, S and F. The S component acts like the B subunit of an A-B exotoxin in that it binds to glycolipids on the outer plasma membrane of animal cells. The F-component acts like the A subunit of an A-B exotoxin and carries the enzymatic activity. The toxin inserts and assembles into a pore in the membrane. Genes that encode PVL are more frequently present in S. aureus strains that cause skin infections and pneumonia.1 PVL promotes skin infections by causing edema, erythema (reddening of the skin due to blood vessel dilation), and skin necrosis. PVL has also been shown to cause necrotizing pneumonia. PVL promotes pro-inflammatory and cytotoxic effects on alveolar leukocytes. This results in the release of enzymes from the leukocytes, which, in turn, cause damage to lung tissue.

    The third class of exotoxins is the superantigens. These are exotoxins that trigger an excessive, nonspecific stimulation of immune cells to secrete cytokines (chemical messengers). The excessive production of cytokines, often called a cytokine storm, elicits a strong immune and inflammatory response that can cause life-threatening high fevers, low blood pressure, multi-organ failure, shock, and death. The prototype superantigen is the toxic shock syndrome toxin of S. aureus. Most toxic shock syndrome cases are associated with vaginal colonization by toxin-producing S. aureus in menstruating women; however, colonization of other body sites can also occur. Some strains of Streptococcus pyogenes also produce superantigens; they are referred to as the streptococcal mitogenic exotoxins and the streptococcal pyrogenic toxins.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    1. Describe how exoenzymes contribute to bacterial invasion.
    2. Explain the difference between exotoxins and endotoxin.
    3. Name the three classes of exotoxins.

    Virulence Factors for Survival in the Host and Immune Evasion

    Evading the immune system is also important to invasiveness. Bacteria use a variety of virulence factors to evade phagocytosis by cells of the immune system. For example, many bacteria produce capsules, which are used in adhesion but also aid in immune evasion by preventing ingestion by phagocytes. The composition of the capsule prevents immune cells from being able to adhere and then phagocytose the cell. In addition, the capsule makes the bacterial cell much larger, making it harder for immune cells to engulf the pathogen (Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\)). A notable capsule-producing bacterium is the gram-positive pathogen Streptococcus pneumoniae, which causes pneumococcal pneumonia, meningitis, septicemia, and other respiratory tract infections. Encapsulated strains of S. pneumoniae are more virulent than nonencapsulated strains and are more likely to invade the bloodstream and cause septicemia and meningitis.

    Some pathogens can also produce proteases to protect themselves against phagocytosis. As will be discussed later, the human immune system produces antibodies that bind to surface molecules found on specific bacteria (e.g., capsules, fimbriae, flagella, LPS). This binding initiates phagocytosis and other mechanisms of antibacterial killing and clearance. Proteases combat antibody-mediated killing and clearance by attacking and digesting the antibody molecules (Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\)).

    In addition to capsules and proteases, some bacterial pathogens produce other virulence factors that allow them to evade the immune system. The fimbriae of certain species of Streptococcus contain M protein, which alters the surface of Streptococcus and inhibits phagocytosis by blocking the binding of the complement molecules that assist phagocytes in ingesting bacterial pathogens. The acid-fast bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis (the causative agent of tuberculosis) produces a waxy substance known as mycolic acid in its cell envelope. When it is engulfed by phagocytes in the lung, the protective mycolic acid coat enables the bacterium to resist some of the killing mechanisms within the phagolysosome.

    a) a micrograph showing nonencapsulated cells as blue ovals on a light background. Encapsulated cells have a thick clear ring around the blue cells. B) Antibodies on phagocytic cells bind to antigens on the bacterial cell. Capsules on the bacterial cell cover the antigen and prevent the antibody from binding to the antigen. C) A bacterial cell is releasing small donts labeled proteases that are breaking down an antibody.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): (a) A micrograph of capsules around bacterial cells. (b) Antibodies normally function by binding to antigens, molecules on the surface of pathogenic bacteria. Phagocytes then bind to the antibody, initiating phagocytosis. (c) Some bacteria also produce proteases, virulence factors that break down host antibodies to evade phagocytosis. (credit a: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

    Some bacteria produce virulence factors that promote infection by exploiting molecules naturally produced by the host. For example, most strains of Staphylococcus aureus produce the exoenzyme coagulase, which exploits the natural mechanism of blood clotting to evade the immune system. Normally, blood clotting is triggered in response to blood vessel damage; platelets begin to plug the clot, and a cascade of reactions occurs in which fibrinogen, a soluble protein made by the liver, is cleaved into fibrin. Fibrin is an insoluble, thread-like protein that binds to blood platelets, cross-links, and contracts to form a mesh of clumped platelets and red blood cells. The resulting clot prevents further loss of blood from the damaged blood vessels. However, if bacteria release coagulase into the bloodstream, the fibrinogen-to-fibrin cascade is triggered in the absence of blood vessel damage. The resulting clot coats the bacteria in fibrin, protecting the bacteria from exposure to phagocytic immune cells circulating in the bloodstream.

    Whereas coagulase causes blood to clot, kinases have the opposite effect by triggering the conversion of plasminogen to plasmin, which is involved in the digestion of fibrin clots. By digesting a clot, kinases allow pathogens trapped in the clot to escape and spread, similar to the way that collagenase, hyaluronidase, and DNAse facilitate the spread of infection. Examples of kinases include staphylokinases and streptokinases, produced by Staphylococcus aureusand Streptococcus pyogenes, respectively. It is intriguing that S. aureus can produce both coagulase to promote clotting and staphylokinase to stimulate the digestion of clots. The action of the coagulase provides an important protective barrier from the immune system, but when nutrient supplies are diminished or other conditions signal a need for the pathogen to escape and spread, the production of staphylokinase can initiate this process.

    A final mechanism that pathogens can use to protect themselves against the immune system is called antigenic variation, which is the alteration of surface proteins so that a pathogen is no longer recognized by the host’s immune system. For example, the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease, contains a surface lipoprotein known as VlsE. Because of genetic recombination during DNA replication and repair, this bacterial protein undergoes antigenic variation. Each time fever occurs, the VlsE protein in B. burgdorferi can differ so much that antibodies against previous VlsE sequences are not effective. It is believed that this variation in the VlsE contributes to the ability B. burgdorferi to cause chronic disease. Another important human bacterial pathogen that uses antigenic variation to avoid the immune system is Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which causes the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea. This bacterium is well known for its ability to undergo antigenic variation of its type IV pili to avoid immune defenses.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    1. Name at least two ways that a capsule provides protection from the immune system.
    2. Besides capsules, name two other virulence factors used by bacteria to evade the immune system.

    Eukaryote Virulence

    Although fungi and parasites are important pathogens causing infectious diseases, their pathogenic mechanisms and virulence factors are not as well characterized as those of bacteria. Despite the relative lack of detailed mechanisms, the stages of pathogenesis and general mechanisms of virulence involved in disease production by these pathogens are similar to those of bacteria.

    Fungal Virulence

    Pathogenic fungi can produce virulence factors that are similar to the bacterial virulence factors that have been discussed earlier in this chapter. In this section, we will look at the virulence factors associated with species of Candida, Cryptococcus, Claviceps, and Aspergillus.

    Candida albicans is an opportunistic fungal pathogen and causative agent of oral thrush, vaginal yeast infections, and cutaneous candidiasis. Candida produces adhesins (surface glycoproteins) that bind to the phospholipids of epithelial and endothelial cells. To assist in spread and tissue invasion, Candida produces proteases and phospholipases (i.e., exoenzymes). One of these proteases degrades keratin, a structural protein found on epithelial cells, enhancing the ability of the fungus to invade host tissue. In animal studies, it has been shown that the addition of a protease inhibitor led to attenuation of Candida infection.2 Similarly, the phospholipases can affect the integrity of host cell membranes to facilitate invasion.

    The main virulence factor for Cryptococcus, a fungus that causes pneumonia and meningitis, is capsule production. The polysaccharide glucuronoxylomannan is the principal constituent of the Cryptococcus capsule. Similar to encapsulated bacterial cells, encapsulated Cryptococcus cells are more resistant to phagocytosis than nonencapsulated Cryptococcus, which are effectively phagocytosed and, therefore, less virulent.

    Like some bacteria, many fungi produce exotoxins. Fungal toxins are called mycotoxins. Claviceps purpurea, a fungus that grows on rye and related grains, produces a mycotoxin called ergot toxin, an alkaloid responsible for the disease known as ergotism. There are two forms of ergotism: gangrenous and convulsive. In gangrenous ergotism, the ergot toxin causes vasoconstriction, resulting in improper blood flow to the extremities, eventually leading to gangrene. A famous outbreak of gangrenous ergotism occurred in Eastern Europe during the 5th century AD due to the consumption of rye contaminated with C. purpurea. In convulsive ergotism, the toxin targets the central nervous system, causing mania and hallucinations.

    The mycotoxin aflatoxin is a virulence factor produced by the fungus Aspergillus, an opportunistic pathogen that can enter the body via contaminated food or by inhalation. Inhalation of the fungus can lead to the chronic pulmonary disease aspergillosis, characterized by fever, bloody sputum, and/or asthma. Aflatoxin acts in the host as both a mutagen (a substance that causes mutations in DNA) and a carcinogen (a substance involved in causing cancer), and has been associated with the development of liver cancer. Aflatoxin has also been shown to cross the blood-placental barrier.3 A second mycotoxin produced by Aspergillus is gliotoxin. This toxin promotes virulence by inducing host cells to self-destruct and by evading the host’s immune response by inhibiting the function of phagocytic cells as well as the pro-inflammatory response. Like Candida, Aspergillus also produces several proteases. One is elastase, which breaks down the protein elastin found in the connective tissue of the lung, leading to the development of lung disease. Another is catalase, an enzyme that protects the fungus from hydrogen peroxide produced by the immune system to destroy pathogens.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    1. List virulence factors common to bacteria and fungi.
    2. What functions do mycotoxins perform to help fungi survive in the host?

    Protozoan Virulence

    Protozoan pathogens are unicellular eukaryotic parasites that have virulence factors and pathogenic mechanisms analogous to prokaryotic and viral pathogens, including adhesins, toxins, antigenic variation, and the ability to survive inside phagocytic vesicles.

    Protozoans often have unique features for attaching to host cells. The protozoan Giardia lamblia, which causes the intestinal disease giardiasis, uses a large adhesive disc composed of microtubules to attach to the intestinal mucosa. During adhesion, the flagella of G. lamblia move in a manner that draws fluid out from under the disc, resulting in an area of lower pressure that facilitates adhesion to epithelial cells. Giardia does not invade the intestinal cells but rather causes inflammation (possibly through the release of cytopathic substances that cause damage to the cells) and shortens the intestinal villi, inhibiting absorption of nutrients.

    Some protozoans are capable of antigenic variation. The obligate intracellular pathogen Plasmodium falciparum (one of the causative agents of malaria) resides inside red blood cells, where it produces an adhesin membrane protein known as PfEMP1. This protein is expressed on the surface of the infected erythrocytes, causing blood cells to stick to each other and to the walls of blood vessels. This process impedes blood flow, sometimes leading to organ failure, anemia, jaundice (yellowing of skin and sclera of the eyes due to buildup of bilirubin from lysed red blood cells), and, subsequently, death. Although PfEMP1 can be recognized by the host’s immune system, antigenic variations in the structure of the protein over time prevent it from being easily recognized and eliminated. This allows malaria to persist as a chronic infection in many individuals.

    The virulence factors of Trypanosoma brucei, the causative agent of African sleeping sickness, include the abilities to form capsules and undergo antigenic variation. T. brucei evades phagocytosis by producing a dense glycoprotein coat that resembles a bacterial capsule. Over time, host antibodies are produced that recognize this coat, but T. brucei is able to alter the structure of the glycoprotein to evade recognition.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    Explain how antigenic variation by protozoan pathogens helps them survive in the host.

    Helminth Virulence

    Helminths, or parasitic worms (in the animal kingdom), are multicellular eukaryotic parasites that depend heavily on virulence factors that allow them to gain entry to host tissues. For example, the aquatic larval form of Schistosoma mansoni, which causes schistosomiasis, penetrates intact skin with the aid of proteases that degrade skin proteins, including elastin.

    To survive within the host long enough to perpetuate their often-complex life cycles, helminths need to evade the immune system. Some helminths are so large that the immune system is ineffective against them. Others, such as adult roundworms (which cause trichinosis, ascariasis, and other diseases), are protected by a tough outer cuticle.

    Over the course of their life cycles, the surface characteristics of the parasites vary, which may help prevent an effective immune response. Some helminths express polysaccharides called glycans on their external surface; because these glycans resemble molecules produced by host cells, the immune system fails to recognize and attack the helminth as a foreign body. This “glycan gimmickry,” as it has been called, serves as a protective cloak that allows the helminth to escape detection by the immune system.4

    In addition to evading host defenses, helminths can actively suppress the immune system. S. mansoni, for example, degrades host antibodies with proteases. Helminths produce many other substances that suppress elements of both innate nonspecific and adaptive specific host defenses. They also release large amounts of material into the host that may locally overwhelm the immune system or cause it to respond inappropriately.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{6}\)

    Describe how helminths avoid being destroyed by the host immune system.

    Viral Virulence

    Although viral pathogens are not similar to bacterial pathogens in terms of structure, some of the properties that contribute to their virulence are similar. Viruses use adhesins to facilitate adhesion to host cells, and certain enveloped viruses rely on antigenic variation to avoid the host immune defenses.

    Viral Adhesins

    One of the first steps in any viral infection is adhesion of the virus to specific receptors on the surface of cells. This process is mediated by adhesins that are part of the viral capsid or membrane envelope. The interaction of viral adhesins with specific cell receptors defines the tropism (preferential targeting) of viruses for specific cells, tissues, and organs in the body. The spike protein hemagglutinin found on Influenzavirus is an example of a viral adhesin; it allows the virus to bind to the sialic acid on the membrane of host respiratory and intestinal cells. Another viral adhesin is the glycoprotein gp20, found on HIV. For HIV to infect cells of the immune system, it must interact with two receptors on the surface of cells. The first interaction involves binding between gp120 and the CD4 cellular marker that is found on some essential immune system cells. However, before viral entry into the cell can occur, a second interaction between gp120 and one of two chemokine receptors (CCR5 and CXCR4) must occur. Table \(\PageIndex{5}\) lists the adhesins for some common viral pathogens and the specific sites to which these adhesins allow viruses to attach.

    Table \(\PageIndex{5}\): Some Viral Adhesins and Their Host Attachment Sites
    Pathogen Disease Adhesin Attachment Site
    Influenzavirus Influenza Hemagglutinin Sialic acid of respiratory and intestinal cells
    Herpes simplex virus I or II Oral herpes, genital herpes Glycoproteins gB, gC, gD Heparan sulfate on mucosal surfaces of the mouth and genitals
    Human immunodeficiency virus HIV/AIDS Glycoprotein gp120 CD4 and CCR5 or CXCR4 of immune system cells

    Antigenic Variation in Viruses

    Antigenic variation also occurs in certain types of enveloped viruses, including influenza viruses, which exhibit two forms of antigenic variation: antigenic drift and antigenic shift (Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\)). Antigenic drift is the result of point mutations causing slight changes in the spike proteins hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). On the other hand, antigenic shift is a major change in spike proteins due to gene reassortment. This reassortment for antigenic shift occurs typically when two different influenza viruses infect the same host.

    The rate of antigenic variation in influenza viruses is very high, making it difficult for the immune system to recognize the many different strains of Influenzavirus. Although the body may develop immunity to one strain through natural exposure or vaccination, antigenic variation results in the continual emergence of new strains that the immune system will not recognize. This is the main reason that vaccines against Influenzavirus must be given annually. Each year’s influenza vaccine provides protection against the most prevalent strains for that year, but new or different strains may be more prevalent the following year.

    a) antigenic drift results from genetic mutations. Virus A is shown with different shaped pieces on the outside labeled neuraminidase and hemagglutinin. The mutated hemagglutinin has a different shape. B) Antigenic shift results from genetic reassortment. Virus A has green hemagglutinin and orange neuraminidase on the outside. Virus B has purple neuraminidase and blue hemagglutinin. These both enter the same host cell. Virus C is then produced which has the neuraminidase from virus A and the hemagglutinin from virus B.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Antigenic drift and antigenic shift in influenza viruses. (a) In antigenic drift, mutations in the genes for the surface proteins neuraminidase and/or hemagglutinin result in small antigenic changes over time. (b) In antigenic shift, simultaneous infection of a cell with two different influenza viruses results in mixing of the genes. The resultant virus possesses a mixture of the proteins of the original viruses. Influenza pandemics can often be traced to antigenic shifts.

    For another explanation of how antigenic shift and drift occur, watch this video.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{7}\)

    1. Describe the role of adhesins in viral tropism.
    2. Explain the difference between antigenic drift and antigenic shift.

    Key Concepts and Summary

    • Virulence factors contribute to a pathogen’s ability to cause disease.
    • Exoenzymes and toxins allow pathogens to invade host tissue and cause tissue damage. Exoenzymes are classified according to the macromolecule they target and exotoxins are classified based on their mechanism of action. Bacterial toxins include endotoxin and exotoxins.
    • Endotoxin is the lipid A component of the LPS of the gram-negative cell envelope. Exotoxins are proteins secreted mainly by gram-positive bacteria, but also are secreted by gram-negative bacteria.
    • Bacterial pathogens may evade the host immune response by producing capsules to avoid phagocytosis, surviving the intracellular environment of phagocytes, degrading antibodies, or through antigenic variation.
    • Fungal and parasitic pathogens use pathogenic mechanisms and virulence factors that are similar to those of bacterial pathogens
    • Fungi initiate infections through the interaction of adhesins with receptors on host cells. Some fungi produce toxins and exoenzymes involved in disease production and capsules that provide protection of phagocytosis.
    • Protozoa adhere to target cells through complex mechanisms and can cause cellular damage through release of cytopathic substances. Some protozoa avoid the immune system through antigenic variation and production of capsules.
    • Helminthic worms are able to avoid the immune system by coating their exteriors with glycan molecules that make them look like host cells or by suppressing the immune system.
    • Viral pathogens use adhesins for initiating infections and antigenic variation to avoid immune defenses. Influenza viruses use both antigenic drift and antigenic shift to avoid being recognized by the immune system.


    1. V. Meka. “Panton-Valentine Leukocidin.”
    2. K. Fallon et al. “Role of Aspartic Proteases in Disseminated Candida albicans Infection in Mice.” Infection and Immunity 65 no. 2 (1997):551–556.
    3. C.P. Wild et al. “In-utero exposure to aflatoxin in west Africa.” Lancet 337 no. 8757 (1991):1602.
    4. I. van Die, R.D. Cummings. “Glycan Gimmickry by Parasitic Helminths: A Strategy for Modulating the Host Immune Response?” Glycobiology 20 no. 1 (2010):2–12.


    • Nina Parker, (Shenandoah University), Mark Schneegurt (Wichita State University), Anh-Hue Thi Tu (Georgia Southwestern State University), Philip Lister (Central New Mexico Community College), and Brian M. Forster (Saint Joseph’s University) with many contributing authors. Original content via Openstax (CC BY 4.0; Access for free at