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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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Mechanisms of Bacterial Pathogenicity (page 6)

(This chapter has 8 pages)

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Avoiding Host Immunological Responses

On epithelial surfaces the main antibacterial immune defense of the host is the protection afforded by secretory antibody (IgA). Once the epithelial surfaces have been penetrated, however, the major host defenses of inflammation, complement, phagocytosis, Antibody-mediated Immunity (AMI), and Cell-mediated Immunity (CMI) are encountered. If there is a way for a pathogen to successfully bypass or overcome these host defenses, then some bacterial pathogen has probably discovered it. Bacteria evolve very rapidly in relation to their host, so that most of the feasible anti-host strategies are likely to have been tried out and exploited. Ability to defeat the immune defenses may play a major role in the virulence of a bacterium and in the pathology of disease. Several strategic bacterial defenses are described below.

Immunological Tolerance to a Bacterial Antigen

Tolerance is a property of the host in which there is an immunologically-specific reduction in the immune response to a given Ag. Tolerance to a bacterial Ag does not involve a general failure in the immune response but a particular deficiency in relation to the specific antigen(s) of a given bacterium. If there is a depressed immune response to relevant antigens of a parasite, the process of infection is facilitated. Tolerance can involve either AMI or CMI or both arms of the immunological response.

Tolerance to an Ag can arise in a number of ways, but three are possibly relevant to bacterial infections.

1. Fetal exposure to Ag

2. High persistent doses of circulating Ag

3. Molecular mimicry. If a bacterial Ag is very similar to normal host "antigens", the immune responses to this Ag may be weak giving a degree of tolerance. Resemblance between bacterial Ag and host Ag is referred to as molecular mimicry. In this case the antigenic determinants of the bacterium are so closely related chemically to host "self" components that the immunological cells cannot distinguish between the two and an immune response cannot be raised. Some bacterial capsules are composed of polysaccharides (hyaluronic acid, sialic acid) so similar to host tissue polysaccharides that they are not immunogenic.

Antigenic Disguise

Bacteria may be able to coat themselves with host proteins (fibrin, fibronectin, antibody molecules) or with host polysaccharides (sialic acid, hyaluronic acid) so that they are able to hide their own antigenic surface components from the immunological system.


Some pathogens (mainly viruses and protozoa, rarely bacteria) cause immunosuppression in the infected host. This means that the host shows depressed immune responses to antigens in general, including those of the infecting pathogen. Suppressed immune responses are occasionally observed during chronic bacterial infections such as leprosy and tuberculosis.

Persistence of a Pathogen at Bodily Sites Inaccessible to the Immune Response

Some pathogens can avoid exposing themselves to immune forces.

Intracellular pathogens can evade host immune responses as long as they stay inside of infected cells and they do not allow microbial Ag to form on the cell surface. Macrophages support the growth of the bacteria and at the same time give them protection from immune responses.

Some pathogens persist on the luminal surfaces of the GI tract, oral cavity and the urinary tract, or the lumen of the salivary gland, mammary gland or the kidney tubule.

Induction of Ineffective Antibody

Many types of antibody are formed against a given Ag, and some bacterial components may display various antigenic determinants. Antibodies tend to range in their capacity to react with Ag (the ability of specific Ab to bind to an Ag is called avidity). If Abs formed against a bacterial Ag are of low avidity, or if they are directed against unimportant antigenic determinants, they may have only weak antibacterial action. Such "ineffective" (non-neutralizing) Abs might even aid a pathogen by combining with a surface Ag and blocking the attachment of any functional Abs that might be present.

Antibodies Absorbed by Soluble Bacterial Antigens

Some bacteria can liberate antigenic surface components in a soluble form into the tissue fluids. These soluble antigens are able to combine with and "neutralize" antibodies before they reach the bacterial cells. For example, small amounts of endotoxin (LPS) may be released into surrounding fluids by Gram-negative bacteria.

Antigenic Variation

One way bacteria can avoid forces of the immune response is by periodically changing antigens, i.e., undergoing antigenic variation. Some bacteria avoid the host antibody response by changing from one type of fimbriae to another, by switching fimbrial tips. This makes the original AMI response obsolete by using new fimbriae that do not bind the previous antibodies. Pathogenic bacteria can vary (change) other surface proteins that are the targets of antibodies. Antigenic variation is prevalent among pathogenic viruses as well.

Changing antigens during the course of an infection

Antigens may vary or change within the host during the course of an infection, or alternatively antigens may vary among multiple strains (antigenic types) of a parasite in the population. Antigenic variation is an important mechanism used by pathogenic microorganisms for escaping the neutralizing activities of antibodies. Antigenic variation usually results from site-specific inversions or gene conversions or gene rearrangements in the DNA of the microorganisms.

Changing antigens between infections

Many pathogenic bacteria exist in nature as multiple antigenic types or serotypes, meaning that they are variant strains of the same pathogenic species. For example, there are multiple serotypes of Salmonella typhimurium based on differences in cell wall (O) antigens or flagellar (H) antigens. There are 80 different antigenic types of Streptococcus pyogenes based on M-proteins on the cell surface. There are over one hundred strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae depending on their capsular polysaccharide antigens. Based on minor differences in surface structure chemistry there are multiple serotypes of Vibrio cholerae, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Neisseria gonorrhoeae and an assortment of other bacterial pathogens.

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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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