Invasion of Pathogens

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H. pylori is able to invade the lining of the stomach by producing virulence factors that enable it pass through the mucin layer covering epithelial cells. (credit: modification of work by Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation)

OpenStax Microbiology

Once adhesion is successful, invasion can proceed. Invasion involves the dissemination of a pathogen throughout local tissues or the body. Pathogens may produce exoenzymes or toxins, which serve as virulence factors that allow them to colonize and damage host tissues as they spread deeper into the body. Pathogens may also produce virulence factors that protect them against immune system defenses. A pathogen’s specific virulence factors determine the degree of tissue damage that occurs. The figure above shows the invasion of H. pylori into the tissues of the stomach, causing damage as it progresses.

Intracellular pathogens achieve invasion by entering the host’s cells and reproducing. Some are obligate intracellular pathogens (meaning they can only reproduce inside of host cells) and others are facultative intracellular pathogens (meaning they can reproduce either inside or outside of host cells). By entering the host cells, intracellular pathogens are able to evade some mechanisms of the immune system while also exploiting the nutrients in the host cell.

Entry to a cell can occur by endocytosis. For most kinds of host cells, pathogens use one of two different mechanisms for endocytosis and entry. One mechanism relies on effector proteins secreted by the pathogen; these effector proteins trigger entry into the host cell. This is the method that Salmonella and Shigella use when invading intestinal epithelial cells. When these pathogens come in contact with epithelial cells in the intestine, they secrete effector molecules that cause protrusions of membrane ruffles that bring the bacterial cell in. This process is called membrane ruffling. The second mechanism relies on surface proteins expressed on the pathogen that bind to receptors on the host cell, resulting in entry. For example, Yersinia pseudotuberculosis produces a surface protein known as invasin that binds to beta-1 integrins expressed on the surface of host cells.

Some host cells, such as white blood cells and other phagocytes of the immune system, actively endocytose pathogens in a process called phagocytosis. Although phagocytosis allows the pathogen to gain entry to the host cell, in most cases, the host cell kills and degrades the pathogen by using digestive enzymes. Normally, when a pathogen is ingested by a phagocyte, it is enclosed within a phagosome in the cytoplasm; the phagosome fuses with a lysosome to form a phagolysosome, where digestive enzymes kill the pathogen. However, some intracellular pathogens have the ability to survive and multiply within phagocytes. Examples include Listeria monocytogenes and Shigella; these bacteria produce proteins that lyse the phagosome before it fuses with the lysosome, allowing the bacteria to escape into the phagocyte’s cytoplasm where they can multiply. Bacteria such as Mycobacterium tuberculosisLegionella pneumophila, and Salmonella species use a slightly different mechanism to evade being digested by the phagocyte. These bacteria prevent the fusion of the phagosome with the lysosome, thus remaining alive and dividing within the phagosome.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: