Bacterial toxins

Ann Clin Lab Sci. Jan-Feb 1988;18(1):58-71.


Many bacterial toxins are proteins, encoded by the bacterial chromosomal genes, plasmids or phages. Lysogenic phages form part of the chromosome. The toxins are usually liberated from the organism by lysis, but some are shed with outer membrane proteins in outer membrane vesicles. An important non-protein toxin is lipopolysaccharide or endotoxin, which is a constituent of the cell wall of gram negative bacteria. Toxins may damage the eukaryotic cell membrane by combining with some structural component, or otherwise alter its function. Many toxins combine with specific receptors on the surface membrane, frequently glycoproteins or gangliosides, and penetrate the cell to reach their intracellular target. A common mechanism of entry is absorptive endocytosis. Many protein toxins have an A-B structure, B being a polypeptide which binds to the receptor and A being an enzyme. Many toxins are activated, either when produced by the bacterium or when bound to the membrane receptor, by proteases (nicking). An enzymatic process common to many toxins is adenosine diphosphate (ADP)-ribosylation of the adenylate cyclase regulatory proteins, leading to an increase in intracellular cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). This is the mechanism of action of cholera toxin. Diphtheria toxin catalyzes the transfer of ADP-ribose to elongation factor-2, inhibiting protein synthesis. Most toxins act on the target cells to which they bind, but tetanus toxin, and, to a lesser degree, botulinum toxin, ascend axons and affect more distant structures. Although many toxin effects caused by bacteria have been described, only a few toxins have been identified, characterized, and their mode of action determined at the molecular level. The best known of these are discussed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / pathogenicity
  • Bacterial Toxins* / genetics
  • Bacterial Toxins* / metabolism
  • Bacterial Toxins* / pharmacology
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Endotoxins* / metabolism
  • Endotoxins* / pharmacology
  • Enterotoxins / metabolism
  • Exotoxins* / metabolism
  • Exotoxins* / pharmacology
  • Genes, Bacterial
  • Neurotoxins / metabolism
  • Virulence


  • Bacterial Toxins
  • Endotoxins
  • Enterotoxins
  • Exotoxins
  • Neurotoxins