Effects of Clostridium difficile toxins on epithelial cell barrier

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2000;915:347-56. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2000.tb05263.x.


Clostridium difficile is the primary agent responsible for many patients with antibiotic-associated diarrhea and almost all patients with pseudomembranous colitis following antibiotic therapy. C. difficile infection is the most frequent form of colitis in hospitals and nursing homes and affects millions of patients in the United States and abroad. The first event in the pathogenesis of C. difficile infection involves alterations of the indigenous colonic microflora by antibiotics, followed by colonization with C. difficile. C. difficile causes diarrhea and colitis by releasing two high molecular weight protein exotoxins, toxin A and toxin B, with potent cytotoxic and enterotoxic properties. Evidence presented here indicates that C. difficile toxins compromise the epithelial cell barrier by at least two pathophysiologic pathways, one involving disaggregation of actin microfilaments in colonocytes via glucosylation of the Rho family of proteins leading to epithelial cell destruction and opening of the tight junctions, whereas the other appears to involve early release of proinflammatory cytokines from intestinal epithelial cells probably via activation of MAP kinases. We speculate that cytokines released from intestinal epithelial cells in response to toxin A exposure will diffuse into the lamina propria and activate macrophages, enteric nerves, and sensory neurons to release SP, CGRP, and NT, which, in turn, interact with immune and inflammatory cells and amplify the inflammatory response. Dissection of this inflammatory cascade may help us understand the pathophysiology of inflammatory diarrhea caused by this important pathogen.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacterial Proteins*
  • Bacterial Toxins / metabolism*
  • Clostridioides difficile*
  • Enterocolitis, Pseudomembranous / metabolism*
  • Enterotoxins / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Absorption / physiology*
  • Intestinal Mucosa / metabolism
  • Intestinal Mucosa / microbiology


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Bacterial Toxins
  • Enterotoxins
  • tcdA protein, Clostridium difficile
  • toxB protein, Clostridium difficile