Candida albicans is an opportunistic fungal pathogen and causative agent of oral thrush, vaginal yeast infections, and cutaneous candidiasis. Candida produces adhesins (surface glycoproteins) that bind to the phospholipids of epithelial and endothelial cells. To assist in spread and tissue invasion, Candida produces proteases and phospholipases (i.e., exoenzymes). One of these proteases degrades keratin, a structural protein found on epithelial cells, enhancing the ability of the fungus to invade host tissue. In animal studies, it has been shown that the addition of a protease inhibitor led to attenuation of Candida infection. Similarly, the phospholipases can affect the integrity of host cell membranes to facilitate invasion.
The main virulence factor for Cryptococcus, a fungus that causes pneumonia and meningitis, is capsule production. The polysaccharide glucuronoxylomannan is the principal constituent of the Cryptococcus capsule. Similar to encapsulated bacterial cells, encapsulated Cryptococcus cells are more resistant to phagocytosis than nonencapsulated Cryptococcus, which are effectively phagocytosed and, therefore, less virulent.
Like some bacteria, many fungi produce exotoxins. Fungal toxins are called mycotoxins. Claviceps purpurea, a fungus that grows on rye and related grains, produces a mycotoxin called ergot toxin, an alkaloid responsible for the disease known as ergotism. There are two forms of ergotism: gangrenous and convulsive. In gangrenous ergotism, the ergot toxin causes vasoconstriction, resulting in improper blood flow to the extremities, eventually leading to gangrene. A famous outbreak of gangrenous ergotism occurred in Eastern Europe during the 5th century AD due to the consumption of rye contaminated with C. purpurea. In convulsive ergotism, the toxin targets the central nervous system, causing mania and hallucinations.
The mycotoxin aflatoxin is a virulence factor produced by the fungus Aspergillus, an opportunistic pathogen that can enter the body via contaminated food or by inhalation. Inhalation of the fungus can lead to the chronic pulmonary disease aspergillosis, characterized by fever, bloody sputum, and/or asthma. Aflatoxin acts in the host as both a mutagen (a substance that causes mutations in DNA) and a carcinogen (a substance involved in causing cancer), and has been associated with the development of liver cancer. Aflatoxin has also been shown to cross the blood-placental barrier.10 A second mycotoxin produced by Aspergillus is gliotoxin. This toxin promotes virulence by inducing host cells to self-destruct and by evading the host’s immune response by inhibiting the function of phagocytic cells as well as the pro-inflammatory response. Like Candida, Aspergillus also produces several proteases. One is elastase, which breaks down the protein elastin found in the connective tissue of the lung, leading to the development of lung disease. Another is catalase, an enzyme that protects the fungus from hydrogen peroxide produced by the immune system to destroy pathogens.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology