All members of the verotoxin (VT) family specifically recognize globo-series glycolipids on the surface of susceptible cells. Those toxins that are associated with human disease, VT1, VT2, and VT2c, bind to globotriaosyl ceramide (Gb3) while VT2e, which is associated with edema disease of swine, binds preferentially to globotetraosyl ceramide (Gb4). We were recently able to identify, using site-directed mutagenesis, amino acids in the binding subunit of these toxins that are important in defining their glycosphingolipid (GSL) binding specificity (Tyrrell, G. J., K. Ramotar, B. Boyd, B. W. Toye, C. A. Lingwood, and J. L. Brunton. 1992. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 89:524). The concomitant mutation of Gln64 and Lys66 in the VT2e binding subunit to the corresponding residues (Glu and Gln, respectively) found in VT2 effectively converted the GSL binding specificity of the mutant toxin from Gb4 to Gb3 in vitro. We now report that the altered carbohydrate recognition of the mutant toxin (termed GT3) has biological significance, resulting in a unique disease after intravascular injection into pigs as compared with classical VT2e-induced edema disease. The tissue localization of radiolabeled GT3 after intravascular injection was elevated in neural tissues compared with VT2e accumulation, while localization of GT3 to the gastrointestinal tract was relatively reduced. Accordingly, the pathological lesions after challenge with GT3 involved gross edema of the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem, while purified VT2e caused hemorrhage and edema of the cerebellum, and submucosa of the stomach and large intestine. In addition, both radiolabeled toxins bound extensively to tissues not directly involved in the pathology of disease. VT2e, unlike GT3 or VT1, bound extensively to red cells, which have high levels of Gb4. The overall tissue distribution of VT2e was thus found to be influenced by regional blood flow to each organ and not solely by the Gb4 levels of these tissues. Conversely, the distribution of GT3 (and VT1), which cleared more rapidly from the circulation, correlated with respective tissue Gb3 levels rather than blood flow. These studies indicate the primary role of carbohydrate binding specificity in determining systemic pathology, suggest that the red cells act as a toxin carrier in edema disease, and indicate that red cell binding does not protect against the pathology of systemic verotoxemia.

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