The Protein Toxins Ricin and Shiga Toxin as Tools to Explore Cellular Mechanisms of Internalization and Intracellular Transport

Toxins (Basel). 2021 May 25;13(6):377. doi: 10.3390/toxins13060377.


Protein toxins secreted by bacteria and found in plants can be threats to human health. However, their extreme toxicity can also be exploited in different ways, e.g., to produce hybrid toxins directed against cancer cells and to study transport mechanisms in cells. Investigations during the last decades have shown how powerful these molecules are as tools in cell biological research. Here, we first present a partly historical overview, with emphasis on Shiga toxin and ricin, of how such toxins have been used to characterize processes and proteins of importance for their trafficking. In the second half of the article, we describe how one can now use toxins to investigate the role of lipid classes for intracellular transport. In recent years, it has become possible to quantify hundreds of lipid species using mass spectrometry analysis. Thus, it is also now possible to explore the importance of lipid species in intracellular transport. The detailed analyses of changes in lipids seen under conditions of inhibited toxin transport reveal previously unknown connections between syntheses of lipid classes and demonstrate the ability of cells to compensate under given conditions.

Keywords: Golgi apparatus; endocytosis; endoplasmic reticulum; intracellular transport; lipids; mass spectrometry; membranes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Transport
  • Cell Count
  • Endocytosis
  • Endosomes / metabolism
  • Golgi Apparatus / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Membrane Microdomains / metabolism
  • Protein Transport
  • Ricin / metabolism*
  • Shiga Toxin / metabolism*
  • Trihexosylceramides / analysis


  • Trihexosylceramides
  • globotriaosylceramide
  • Shiga Toxin
  • Ricin