Human transferrin confers serum resistance against Bacillus anthracis

J Biol Chem. 2010 Sep 3;285(36):27609-13. doi: 10.1074/jbc.M110.154930. Epub 2010 Jul 8.


The innate immune system in humans consists of both cellular and humoral components that collaborate to eradicate invading bacteria from the body. Here, we discover that the gram-positive bacterium Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax, does not grow in human serum. Fractionation of serum by gel filtration chromatography led to the identification of human transferrin as the inhibiting factor. Purified transferrin blocks growth of both the fully virulent encapsulated B. anthracis Ames and the non-encapsulated Sterne strain. Growth inhibition was also observed in serum of wild-type mice but not of hypotransferrinemic mice that only have approximately 1% circulating transferrin levels. We were able to definitely assign the bacteriostatic activity of transferrin to its iron-binding function: neither iron-saturated transferrin nor a recombinant transferrin mutant unable to bind iron could inhibit growth of B. anthracis. Additional iron could restore bacterial growth in human serum. The observation that other important gram-positive pathogens are not inhibited by transferrin suggests they have evolved effective mechanisms to circumvent serum iron deprivation. These findings provide a better understanding of human host defense mechanisms against anthrax and provide a mechanistic basis for the antimicrobial activity of human transferrin.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Bacillus anthracis / drug effects*
  • Bacillus anthracis / growth & development
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Iron / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Serum / immunology*
  • Serum / microbiology*
  • Transferrin / pharmacology*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Transferrin
  • Iron