Regulating toxin-antitoxin expression: controlled detonation of intracellular molecular timebombs

Toxins (Basel). 2014 Jan 15;6(1):337-58. doi: 10.3390/toxins6010337.


Genes for toxin-antitoxin (TA) complexes are widely disseminated in bacteria, including in pathogenic and antibiotic resistant species. The toxins are liberated from association with the cognate antitoxins by certain physiological triggers to impair vital cellular functions. TAs also are implicated in antibiotic persistence, biofilm formation, and bacteriophage resistance. Among the ever increasing number of TA modules that have been identified, the most numerous are complexes in which both toxin and antitoxin are proteins. Transcriptional autoregulation of the operons encoding these complexes is key to ensuring balanced TA production and to prevent inadvertent toxin release. Control typically is exerted by binding of the antitoxin to regulatory sequences upstream of the operons. The toxin protein commonly works as a transcriptional corepressor that remodels and stabilizes the antitoxin. However, there are notable exceptions to this paradigm. Moreover, it is becoming clear that TA complexes often form one strand in an interconnected web of stress responses suggesting that their transcriptional regulation may prove to be more intricate than currently understood. Furthermore, interference with TA gene transcriptional autoregulation holds considerable promise as a novel antibacterial strategy: artificial release of the toxin factor using designer drugs is a potential approach to induce bacterial suicide from within.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antitoxins / genetics*
  • Antitoxins / metabolism
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics*
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism
  • DNA Gyrase / genetics
  • DNA Gyrase / metabolism
  • DNA, Bacterial / genetics
  • Epigenetic Repression
  • Escherichia coli / genetics*
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Toxins, Biological / genetics*
  • Toxins, Biological / metabolism
  • Transcriptional Activation


  • Antitoxins
  • Bacterial Proteins
  • DNA, Bacterial
  • Toxins, Biological
  • DNA Gyrase