Mobile genetic elements and bacterial toxinoses: the superantigen-encoding pathogenicity islands of Staphylococcus aureus

Plasmid. 2003 Mar;49(2):93-105. doi: 10.1016/s0147-619x(02)00157-9.


It is a remarkable observation that virtually all bacterial toxins associated with specific clinical conditions (toxinoses) are encoded by mobile (and therefore variable) genetic elements. Remarkably, these rarely, if ever, carry determinants of antibiotic resistance. Examples are the toxins responsible for diphtheria, anthrax, tetanus, botulism, cholera, toxic shock, scarlet fever, exfoliative dermatitis, food poisoning, travelers' diarrhea, shigella dysentery, necrotizing pneumonia, and others. A recently discovered example of this phenomenon is the family of related staphylococcal pathogenicity islands encoding superantigens (SAgs). These are 15-20kb elements that occupy constant positions in the chromosomes of toxigenic strains, and are characterized by certain phage-related features, namely genes encoding integrases, helicases, and terminases, and the presence of flanking direct repeats. The prototype, SaPI1 of Staphylococcus aureus, encodes TSST-1 plus two newly described SAgs, SEK and SEL. Other members of the family encode enterotoxins B (SaPI3) and C (SaPI4), plus at least two other SAgs each. SaPI1 and SaPI2, also encoding TSST-1, are excised and induced to replicate by certain staphylococcal phages, and are then encapsidated at high efficiency into phage-like infectious particles with heads about 1/3 the size of the helper phage heads, commensurate with the sizes of the respective genomes. This results in transfer frequencies of the order of 10(8)/ml, and is presumably responsible for the spread of these elements as well as for their acquisition in the first place. In the absence of a helper phage, these two islands are highly stable; neither excision, loss, or transfer occurs at detectable frequency. Several general implications of this phenomenon will be discussed. One is that the determinants of these toxins have been imported from other species and therefore are not components of the basic genome of the extant producing organisms. This raises the question of the biological (adaptive?) roles of these toxins. Another is that the toxin-carrying units can spread among different (though probably related) species. An interesting question is that of the biological basis for the separation of toxin and resistance determinants.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Bacteria / pathogenicity*
  • Bacterial Infections / microbiology*
  • Bacterial Toxins / genetics*
  • Bacteriophages / genetics
  • DNA Replication
  • Humans
  • Interspersed Repetitive Sequences*
  • Staphylococcus aureus / genetics
  • Staphylococcus aureus / pathogenicity
  • Superantigens / genetics*


  • Bacterial Toxins
  • Superantigens