Secretion of Clostridium difficile toxins A and B requires the holin-like protein TcdE

PLoS Pathog. 2012;8(6):e1002727. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1002727. Epub 2012 Jun 7.


The pathogenesis of Clostridium difficile, the major cause of antibiotic-associated diarrhea, is mainly associated with the production and activities of two major toxins. In many bacteria, toxins are released into the extracellular environment via the general secretion pathways. C. difficile toxins A and B have no export signature and their secretion is not explainable by cell lysis, suggesting that they might be secreted by an unusual mechanism. The TcdE protein encoded within the C. difficile pathogenicity locus (PaLoc) has predicted structural features similar to those of bacteriophage holin proteins. During many types of phage infection, host lysis is driven by an endolysin that crosses the cytoplasmic membrane through a pore formed by holin oligomerization. We demonstrated that TcdE has a holin-like activity by functionally complementing a λ phage deprived of its holin. Similar to λ holin, TcdE expressed in Escherichia coli and C. difficile formed oligomers in the cytoplamic membrane. A C. difficile tcdE mutant strain grew at the same rate as the wild-type strain, but accumulated a dramatically reduced amount of toxin proteins in the medium. However, the complemented tcdE mutant released the toxins efficiently. There was no difference in the abundance of tcdA and tcdB transcripts or of several cytoplasmic proteins in the mutant and the wild-type strains. In addition, TcdE did not overtly affect membrane integrity of C. difficile in the presence of TcdA/TcdB. Thus, TcdE acts as a holin-like protein to facilitate the release of C. difficile toxins to the extracellular environment, but, unlike the phage holins, does not cause the non-specific release of cytosolic contents. TcdE appears to be the first example of a bacterial protein that releases toxins into the environment by a phage-like system.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics*
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism*
  • Bacterial Toxins
  • Base Sequence
  • Blotting, Western
  • Chlorocebus aethiops
  • Clostridioides difficile / genetics
  • Clostridioides difficile / metabolism*
  • Clostridium Infections / genetics
  • Clostridium Infections / metabolism
  • Enterotoxins / metabolism*
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial / physiology*
  • Gene Knockdown Techniques
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Vero Cells


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Bacterial Toxins
  • Enterotoxins
  • TcdE protein, Clostridium difficile
  • tcdA protein, Clostridium difficile
  • toxB protein, Clostridium difficile