Human Clostridium difficile infection: altered mucus production and composition

Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2015 Mar 15;308(6):G510-24. doi: 10.1152/ajpgi.00091.2014. Epub 2014 Dec 31.


The majority of antibiotic-induced diarrhea is caused by Clostridium difficile (C. difficile). Hospitalizations for C. difficile infection (CDI) have tripled in the last decade, emphasizing the need to better understand how the organism colonizes the intestine and maintain infection. The mucus provides an interface for bacterial-host interactions and changes in intestinal mucus have been linked host health. To assess mucus production and composition in healthy and CDI patients, the main mucins MUC1 and MUC2 and mucus oligosaccharides were examined. Compared with healthy subjects, CDI patients demonstrated decreased MUC2 with no changes in surface MUC1. Although MUC1 did not change at the level of the epithelia, MUC1 was the primary constituent of secreted mucus in CDI patients. CDI mucus also exhibited decreased N-acetylgalactosamine (GalNAc), increased N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc), and increased terminal galactose residues. Increased galactose in CDI specimens is of particular interest since terminal galactose sugars are known as C. difficile toxin A receptor in animals. In vitro, C. difficile is capable of metabolizing fucose, mannose, galactose, GlcNAc, and GalNAc for growth under healthy stool conditions (low Na(+) concentration, pH 6.0). Injection of C. difficile into human intestinal organoids (HIOs) demonstrated that C. difficile alone is sufficient to reduce MUC2 production but is not capable of altering host mucus oligosaccharide composition. We also demonstrate that C. difficile binds preferentially to mucus extracted from CDI patients compared with healthy subjects. Our results provide insight into a mechanism of C. difficile colonization and may provide novel target(s) for the development of alternative therapeutic agents.

Keywords: C. difficile; MUC1; MUC2; intestinal organoid; mucus oligosaccharides.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acetylgalactosamine / metabolism
  • Acetylglucosamine / metabolism
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Clostridium difficile / growth & development
  • Clostridium difficile / isolation & purification
  • Clostridium difficile / metabolism*
  • Colon / metabolism*
  • Colon / microbiology*
  • Enterocolitis, Pseudomembranous / metabolism*
  • Enterocolitis, Pseudomembranous / microbiology*
  • Feces / microbiology
  • Female
  • Galactose / analogs & derivatives
  • Galactose / metabolism
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Mucosa / metabolism
  • Intestinal Mucosa / microbiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mucin-1 / metabolism
  • Mucin-2 / metabolism
  • Mucus / metabolism*
  • Organoids
  • Pluripotent Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Pluripotent Stem Cells / microbiology


  • MUC1 protein, human
  • MUC2 protein, human
  • Mucin-1
  • Mucin-2
  • Acetylgalactosamine
  • Acetylglucosamine
  • Galactose