Why Bacillus thuringiensis insecticidal toxins are so effective: unique features of their mode of action

FEMS Microbiol Lett. 2001 Feb 5;195(1):1-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1574-6968.2001.tb10489.x.


The spore-forming bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis produces intracellular inclusions comprised of protoxins active on several orders of insects. These highly effective and specific toxins have great potential in agriculture and for the control of disease-related insect vectors. Inclusions ingested by larvae are solubilized and converted to active toxins in the midgut. There are two major classes, the cytolytic toxins and the delta-endotoxins. The former are produced by B. thuringiensis subspecies active on Diptera. The latter, which will be the focus of this review, are more prevalent and active on at least three orders of insects. They have a three-domain structure with extensive functional interactions among the domains. The initial reversible binding to receptors on larval midgut cells is largely dependent upon domains II and III. Subsequent steps involve toxin insertion into the membrane and aggregation, leading to the formation of gated, cation-selective channels. The channels are comprised of certain amphipathic helices in domain I, but the three processes of insertion, aggregation and the formation of functional channels are probably dependent upon all three domains. Lethality is believed to be due to destruction of the transmembrane potential, with the subsequent osmotic lysis of cells lining the midgut. In this review, the mode of action of these delta-endotoxins will be discussed with emphasis on unique features.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacillus thuringiensis / metabolism*
  • Bacillus thuringiensis Toxins
  • Bacterial Proteins / pharmacology*
  • Bacterial Toxins*
  • Endotoxins / pharmacology*
  • Hemolysin Proteins
  • Insecta / drug effects*
  • Ion Channels / physiology*
  • Pest Control, Biological*


  • Bacillus thuringiensis Toxins
  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Bacterial Toxins
  • Endotoxins
  • Hemolysin Proteins
  • Ion Channels
  • insecticidal crystal protein, Bacillus Thuringiensis