Gram-positive bacterial superantigen outside-in signaling causes toxic shock syndrome

FEBS J. 2011 Dec;278(23):4649-67. doi: 10.1111/j.1742-4658.2011.08151.x. Epub 2011 May 19.


Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococci) are Gram-positive pathogens capable of producing a variety of bacterial exotoxins known as superantigens. Superantigens interact with antigen-presenting cells (APCs) and T cells to induce T cell proliferation and massive cytokine production, which leads to fever, rash, capillary leak and subsequent hypotension, the major symptoms of toxic shock syndrome. Both S. aureus and group A streptococci colonize mucosal surfaces, including the anterior nares and vagina for S. aureus, and the oropharynx and less commonly the vagina for group A streptococci. However, due to their abilities to secrete a variety of virulence factors, the organisms can also cause illnesses from the mucosa. This review provides an updated discussion of the biochemical and structural features of one group of secreted virulence factors, the staphylococcal and group A streptococcal superantigens, and their abilities to cause toxic shock syndrome from a mucosal surface. The main focus of this review, however, is the abilities of superantigens to induce cytokines and chemokines from epithelial cells, which has been linked to a dodecapeptide region that is relatively conserved among all superantigens and is distinct from the binding sites required for interactions with APCs and T cells. This phenomenon, termed outside-in signaling, acts to recruit adaptive immune cells to the submucosa, where the superantigens can then interact with those cells to initiate the final cytokine cascades that lead to toxic shock syndrome.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigen-Presenting Cells / immunology
  • Antigen-Presenting Cells / metabolism
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism
  • Gram-Positive Bacteria / immunology*
  • Gram-Positive Bacteria / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Protein Conformation
  • Shock, Septic / immunology
  • Shock, Septic / metabolism*
  • Shock, Septic / microbiology
  • Signal Transduction
  • Superantigens / chemistry
  • Superantigens / immunology*
  • Superantigens / metabolism*
  • Virulence Factors / immunology
  • Virulence Factors / metabolism


  • Superantigens
  • Virulence Factors