The contribution of Escherichia coli hemolysin (ECH) to bacterial virulence has been considered mainly in context with its hemolytic properties. We here report that this prevalent bacterial cytolysin is the most potent leukocidin known to date. Very low concentrations (approximately 1 ng/ml) of ECH evoke membrane permeability defects in PMN (2-10 x 10(6) cells/ml) leading to an efflux of cellular ATP and influx of propidium iodide. The attacked cells do not appear to repair the membrane lesions. Human serum albumin, high density and low density lipoprotein, and IgG together protect erythrocytes and platelets against attack by even high doses (5-25 micrograms/ml) of ECH. In contrast, PMN are still permeabilized by ECH at low doses (50-250 ng/ml) in the presence of these plasma inactivators. Thus, PMN become preferred targets for attack by ECH in human blood and protein-rich body fluids. Kinetic studies demonstrate that membrane permeabilization is a rapid process, ATP-release commencing within seconds after application of toxin to leukocytes. It is estimated that membrane permeabilization ensues upon binding of approximately 300 molecules ECH/PMN. This process is paralleled by granule exocytosis, and by loss of phagocytic killing capacity of the cells. The recognition that ECH directly counteracts a major immune defence mechanism of the human organism through its attack on granulocytes under physiological conditions sheds new light on its possible role and potential importance as a virulence factor of E. coli.

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