Contribution of lethal toxin and edema toxin to the pathogenesis of anthrax meningitis

Infect Immun. 2011 Jul;79(7):2510-8. doi: 10.1128/IAI.00006-11. Epub 2011 Apr 25.


Bacillus anthracis is a Gram-positive spore-forming bacterium that causes anthrax disease in humans and animals. Systemic infection is characterized by septicemia, toxemia, and meningitis, the main neurological complication associated with high mortality. We have shown previously that B. anthracis Sterne is capable of blood-brain barrier (BBB) penetration, establishing the classic signs of meningitis, and that infection is dependent on the expression of both major anthrax toxins, lethal toxin (LT) and edema toxin (ET). Here we further investigate the contribution of the individual toxins to BBB disruption using isogenic toxin mutants deficient in lethal factor, ΔLF, and edema factor, ΔEF. Acute infection with B. anthracis Sterne and the ΔLF mutant resulted in disruption of human brain microvascular endothelial cell (hBMEC) monolayer integrity and tight junction protein zona occludens-1, while the result for cells infected with the ΔEF mutant was similar to that for the noninfected control. A significant decrease in bacterial invasion of BBB endothelium in vitro was observed during infection with the ΔLF strain, suggesting a prominent role for LT in promoting BBB interaction. Further, treatment of hBMECs with purified LT or chemicals that mimic LT action on host signaling pathways rescued the hypoinvasive phenotype of the ΔLF mutant and resulted in increased bacterial uptake. We also observed that toxin expression reduced bacterial intracellular survival by inducing the bulk degradative autophagy pathway in host cells. Finally, in a murine model of anthrax meningitis, mice infected with the ΔLF mutant exhibited no mortality, brain bacterial load, or evidence of meningitis compared to mice infected with the parental or ΔEF strains.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anthrax / microbiology*
  • Anthrax / mortality
  • Anthrax / pathology
  • Antigens, Bacterial / biosynthesis
  • Antigens, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Antigens, Bacterial / metabolism*
  • Autophagy
  • Bacillus anthracis / genetics
  • Bacillus anthracis / pathogenicity*
  • Bacterial Toxins / biosynthesis
  • Bacterial Toxins / genetics*
  • Bacterial Toxins / metabolism*
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / microbiology*
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / pathology
  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / pathology
  • Endothelial Cells / pathology
  • Humans
  • Membrane Proteins / metabolism
  • Meningitis, Bacterial / microbiology*
  • Meningitis, Bacterial / mortality
  • Meningitis, Bacterial / pathology
  • Mice
  • Microvessels / pathology
  • Mutation
  • Phosphoproteins / metabolism
  • Tight Junctions / ultrastructure
  • Zonula Occludens-1 Protein


  • Antigens, Bacterial
  • Bacterial Toxins
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Phosphoproteins
  • TJP1 protein, human
  • Tjp1 protein, mouse
  • Zonula Occludens-1 Protein
  • anthrax toxin