Infections with Staphylococcus aureus, a common inducer of septic and toxic shock, often result in tissue damage and death of various cell types. Although S. aureus was suggested to induce apoptosis, the underlying signal transduction pathways remained elusive. We show that caspase activation and DNA fragmentation were induced not only when Jurkat T cells were infected with intact bacteria, but also after treatment with supernatants of various S. aureus strains. We also demonstrate that S. aureus–induced cell death and caspase activation were mediated by α-toxin, a major cytotoxin of S. aureus, since both events were abrogated by two different anti–α-toxin antibodies and could not be induced with supernatants of an α-toxin–deficient S. aureus strain. Furthermore, α-toxin–induced caspase activation in CD95-resistant Jurkat sublines lacking CD95, Fas-activated death domain, or caspase-8 but not in cells stably expressing the antiapoptotic protein Bcl-2. Together with our finding that α-toxin induces cytochrome c release in intact cells and, interestingly, also from isolated mitochondria in a Bcl-2-controlled manner, our results demonstrate that S. aureus α-toxin triggers caspase activation via the intrinsic death pathway independently of death receptors. Hence, our findings clearly define a signaling pathway used in S. aureus–induced cytotoxicity and may provide a molecular rationale for future therapeutic interventions in bacterial infections.

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