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Tag words: Clostridium, clostridia, C. tetani, C. botulinum, C. perfringens, C. difficile, C diff, endospore, tetanus, lockjaw, botulism, infant botulism, food poisoning, gastroenteritis, anaerobic infection, anaerobe, gangrene, gas gangrene, pseudomembranous colitis, antibiotic associated diarrhea, AAD, tetanus toxin, tetanospasmin, botulinum toxin, botox, tetanus toxoid, DT vaccine.


Kingdom: Bacteria
Phylum: Firmicutes
Class: Clostridia
Order: Clostridiales
Family: Clostridiaceae
Genus: Clostridium
Species: e.g. C. tetani

Kenneth Todar currently teaches Microbiology 100 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His main teaching interest include general microbiology, bacterial diversity, microbial ecology and pathogenic bacteriology.

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Pathogenic Clostridia, including Botulism and Tetanus (page 3)

(This chapter has 4 pages)

© Kenneth Todar, PhD

Clostridium tetani

C. tetani

Clostridium tetani is the causative agent of tetanus. The organism is found in soil, especially heavily-manured soils, and in the intestinal tracts and feces of various animals. Carrier rates in humans vary from 0 to 25%, and the organism is thought to be a transient member of the flora whose presence depends upon ingestion. The organism produces terminal spores within a swollen sporangium giving it a distinctive drumstick appearance. Although the bacterium has a typical Gram-positive cell wall, it may stain Gram-negative or Gram-variable, especially in older cells.

Clostridium tetani Gram stain. Characteristic terminal endospores in a swollen sporangium exhibiting "tennis racket" shape. CDC

Tetanus is a highly fatal disease of humans. Mortality rates reported vary from 40% to 78%. The disease stems not from invasive infection but from a potent neurotoxin (tetanus toxin or tetanospasmin) produced when spores germinate and vegetative cells grow after gaining access to wounds. The organism multiplies locally and symptoms appear remote from the infection site.

Because of the widespread use of the tetanus toxoid for prophylactic immunization, fewer than 150 cases occur annually in the U.S., but the disease is a significant problem world-wide where there are >300,000 cases annually. Most cases in the U.S occur in individuals over age 60, which is taken to mean that waning immunity is a significant risk factor.

Pathogenesis of tetanus

Most cases of tetanus result from small puncture wounds or lacerations which become contaminated with C. tetani spores that germinate and produce toxin. The infection remains localized, often with only minimal inflammatory damage. The toxin is produced during cell growth, sporulation and lysis. It migrates along neural paths from a local wound to sites of action in the central nervous system. The clinical pattern of generalized tetanus consists of severe painful spasms and rigidity of the voluntary muscles. The characteristic symptom of "lockjaw" involves spasms of the masseter muscle. It is an early symptom which is followed by progressive rigidity and violent spasms of the trunk and limb muscles. Spasms of the pharyngeal muscles cause difficulty in swallowing. Death usually results from interference with the mechanics of respiration.

Sir Charles Bell's portrait of a soldier dying of tetanus. The characteristic rigidity of the body is referred to as opisthotonos and risus sardonicus. Original in the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Neonatal tetanus accounts for about half of the tetanus deaths in developing countries. In a study of neonatal mortality in Bangladesh, 112 of 330 infant deaths were due to tetanus. Neonatal tetanus follows infection of the umbilical stump in infants born to nonimmune mothers (therefore, the infant has not acquired passive immunity). It usually results from a failure of aseptic technique during birthing procedures, but certain cultural practices may contribute to infection.

Tetanus Toxin

There have been 11 strains of C. tetani distinguished primarily on the basis of flagellar antigens. They differ in their ability to produce tetanus toxin (tetanospasmin), but all strains produce a toxin which is identical in its immunological and pharmacological properties. Tetanospasmin is encoded on a plasmid which is present in all toxigenic strains.

Tetanus toxin is one of the three most poisonous substances known to humans, the other two being the toxins of botulism and diphtheria. The toxin is produced by growing cells and released only on cell lysis. Cells lyse naturally during germination the outgrowth of spores, as well as during vegetative growth. After inoculation of a wound with C. tetani spores, only a minimal amount of spore germination and vegetative cell growth are required until the toxin is produced.

The bacterium synthesizes the tetanus toxin as a single 150kDa polypeptide chain (called the progenitor toxin), that is cleaved extracellularly by a bacterial protease into a 100 kDa heavy chain (fragment B) and a 50kDa light chain (fragment A), which remain connected by a disulfide bridge. The specific protease that cleaves the progenitor toxin can be found in culture filtrates of C. tetani. Cleavage of the progenitor toxin into A and B fragments can also be induced artificially with trypsin.

Tetanus toxin is produced in vitro in amounts up to 5 to 10% of the bacterial weight. Because the toxin has a specific affinity for nervous tissue, it is referred to as a neurotoxin. The toxin has no known useful function to C. tetani. Why the toxin has a specific action on nervous tissue, to which the organism naturally has no access, may be an anomaly of nature. The toxin is heat labile, being destroyed at 56oC in 5 minutes, and is O2 labile. The purified toxin rapidly converts to toxoid at 0oC in the presence of formalin.

Toxin Action

initially binds to peripheral nerve terminals. It is transported within the axon and across synaptic junctions until it reaches the central nervous system. There it becomes rapidly fixed to gangliosides at the presynaptic inhibitory motor nerve endings, and is taken up into the axon by endocytosis. The effect of the toxin is to block the release of inhibitory neurotransmitters (glycine and gamma-amino butyric acid) across the synaptic cleft, which is required to inhibit nervous impulse. If nervous impulses cannot be checked by normal inhibitory mechanisms, it produces the generalized muscular spasms characteristic of tetanus. Tetanospasmin appears to act by selective cleavage of a protein component of synaptic vesicles, synaptobrevin II, and this prevents the release of neurotransmitters by the cells.

The receptor to which tetanospasmin binds has been reported as ganglioside GT and/or GD1b, but its exact identity is still in question. Binding appears to depend on the number and position of sialic acid residues on the ganglioside. Isolated B fragments, but not A fragments, will bind to the ganglioside. The A fragment has toxic (enzymatic) activity after the B fragment secures its entry. Binding appears to be an irreversible event so that recovery depends on sprouting a new axon terminal.


Unlike other toxigenic diseases, such as diphtheria, recovery from the natural disease usually does not confer immunity, since even a lethal dose of tetanospasmin is insufficient to provoke an immune response.

Prophylactic immunization is accomplished with tetanus toxoid, as part of the DPT (DTaP) vaccine or the DT (TD) vaccine. Three injections are given in the first year of life, and a booster is given about a year later, and again on the entrance into elementary school.

Whenever a previously-immunized individual sustains a potentially dangerous wound, a booster of toxoid should be injected. Wherever employed, intensive programs of immunization with toxoid have led to a striking reduction in the incidence of the disease.

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Kenneth Todar has taught microbiology to undergraduate students at The University of Texas, University of Alaska and University of Wisconsin since 1969.

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