Human hypervirulent Clostridium difficile strains exhibit increased sporulation as well as robust toxin production

Michelle Merrigan, Anilrudh Venugopal, Michael Mallozzi, Bryan Roxas, V. K. Viswanathan, Stuart Johnson, Dale N. Gerding, Gayatri Vedantam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

216 Scopus citations


Toxigenic Clostridium difficile strains produce two toxins (TcdA and TcdB) during the stationary phase of growth and are the leading cause of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. C. difficile isolates of the molecular type NAP1/027/BI have been associated with severe disease and hospital outbreaks worldwide. It has been suggested that these "hypervirulent" strains produce larger amounts of toxin and that a mutation in a putative negative regulator (TcdC) allows toxin production at all growth phases. To rigorously explore this possibility, we conducted a quantitative examination of the toxin production of multiple hypervirulent and nonhypervirulent C. difficile strains. Toxin gene (tcdA and tcdB) and toxin gene regulator (tcdR and tcdC) expression was also monitored. To obtain additional correlates for the hypervirulence phenotype, sporulation kinetics and efficiency were measured. In the exponential phase, low basal levels of tcdA, tcdB, and tcdR expression were evident in both hypervirulent and nonhypervirulent strains, but contrary to previous assumptions, toxin levels were below the detectable thresholds. While hypervirulent strains displayed robust toxin production during the stationary phase of growth, the amounts were not significantly different from those of the nonhypervirulent strains tested; further, total toxin amounts were directly proportional to tcdA, tcdB, and tcdR gene expression. Interestingly, tcdC expression did not diminish in stationary phase, suggesting that TcdC may have a modulatory rather than a strictly repressive role. Comparative genomic analyses of the closely related nonhypervirulent strains VPI 10463 (the highest toxin producer) and 630 (the lowest toxin producer) revealed polymorphisms in the tcdR ribosome binding site and the tcdR-tcdB intergenic region, suggesting that a mechanistic basis for increased toxin production in VPI 10463 could be increased TcdR translation and read-through transcription of the tcdA and tcdB genes. Hypervirulent isolates produced significantly more spores, and did so earlier, than all other isolates. Increased sporulation, potentially in synergy with robust toxin production, may therefore contribute to the widespread disease now associated with hypervirulent C. difficile strains.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4904-4911
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of bacteriology
Issue number19
StatePublished - Oct 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Molecular Biology


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