Hypoxia and the hypoxic response pathway protect against pore-forming toxins in C. elegans

PLoS Pathog. 2009 Dec;5(12):e1000689. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1000689. Epub 2009 Dec 11.


Pore-forming toxins (PFTs) are by far the most abundant bacterial protein toxins and are important for the virulence of many important pathogens. As such, cellular responses to PFTs critically modulate host-pathogen interactions. Although many cellular responses to PFTs have been recorded, little is understood about their relevance to pathological or defensive outcomes. To shed light on this important question, we have turned to the only genetic system for studying PFT-host interactions-Caenorhabditis elegans intoxication by Crystal (Cry) protein PFTs. We mutagenized and screened for C. elegans mutants resistant to a Cry PFT and recovered one mutant. Complementation, sequencing, transgenic rescue, and RNA interference data demonstrate that this mutant eliminates a gene normally involved in repression of the hypoxia (low oxygen response) pathway. We find that up-regulation of the C. elegans hypoxia pathway via the inactivation of three different genes that normally repress the pathway results in animals resistant to Cry PFTs. Conversely, mutation in the central activator of the hypoxia response, HIF-1, suppresses this resistance and can result in animals defective in PFT defenses. These results extend to a PFT that attacks mammals since up-regulation of the hypoxia pathway confers resistance to Vibrio cholerae cytolysin (VCC), whereas down-regulation confers hypersusceptibility. The hypoxia PFT defense pathway acts cell autonomously to protect the cells directly under attack and is different from other hypoxia pathway stress responses. Two of the downstream effectors of this pathway include the nuclear receptor nhr-57 and the unfolded protein response. In addition, the hypoxia pathway itself is induced by PFT, and low oxygen is protective against PFT intoxication. These results demonstrate that hypoxia and induction of the hypoxia response protect cells against PFTs, and that the cellular environment can be modulated via the hypoxia pathway to protect against the most prevalent class of weapons used by pathogenic bacteria.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacterial Toxins / immunology*
  • Bacterial Toxins / metabolism
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / immunology*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / metabolism
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / parasitology*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / immunology
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / metabolism
  • Cell Hypoxia / immunology*
  • Host-Parasite Interactions / immunology*
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Transcription Factors / immunology
  • Transcription Factors / metabolism


  • Bacterial Toxins
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins
  • HIF-1 protein, C elegans
  • Transcription Factors