The Exoenzymes


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(a) Hyaluronan is a polymer found in the layers of epidermis that connect adjacent cells. (b) Hyaluronidase produced by bacteria degrades this adhesive polymer in the extracellular matrix, allowing passage between cells that would otherwise be blocked.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

The Exoenzymes (OpenStax Microbiology)

Some pathogens produce extracellular enzymes, or exoenzymes, that enable them to invade host cells and deeper tissues. Exoenzymes have a wide variety of targets. Some general classes of exoenzymes and associated pathogens are listed in the table below. Each of these exoenzymes functions in the context of a particular tissue structure to facilitate invasion or support its own growth and defend against the immune system. For example, hyaluronidase S, an enzyme produced by pathogens like Staphylococcus aureusStreptococcus pyogenes, and Clostridium perfringens, degrades the glycoside hyaluronan (hyaluronic acid), which acts as an intercellular cement between adjacent cells in connective tissue. This allows the pathogen to pass through the tissue layers at the portal of entry and disseminate elsewhere in the body.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

Pathogen-produced nucleases, such as DNAse produced by S. aureus, degrade extracellular DNA as a means of escape and spreading through tissue. As bacterial and host cells die at the site of infection, they lyse and release their intracellular contents. The DNA chromosome is the largest of the intracellular molecules, and masses of extracellular DNA can trap bacteria and prevent their spread. S. aureus produces a DNAse to degrade the mesh of extracellular DNA so it can escape and spread to adjacent tissues. This strategy is also used by S. aureus and other pathogens to degrade and escape webs of extracellular DNA produced by immune system phagocytes to trap the bacteria.

Enzymes that degrade the phospholipids of cell membranes are called phospholipases. Their actions are specific in regard to the type of phospholipids they act upon and where they enzymatically cleave the molecules. The pathogen responsible for anthrax, B. anthracis, produces phospholipase C. When B. anthracis is ingested by phagocytic cells of the immune system, phospholipase C degrades the membrane of the phagosome before it can fuse with the lysosome, allowing the pathogen to escape into the cytoplasm and multiply. Phospholipases can also target the membrane that encloses the phagosome within phagocytic cells. As described earlier in this chapter, this is the mechanism used by intracellular pathogens such as L. monocytogenes and Rickettsia to escape the phagosome and multiply within the cytoplasm of phagocytic cells. The role of phospholipases in bacterial virulence is not restricted to phagosomal escape. Many pathogens produce phospholipases that act to degrade cell membranes and cause lysis of target cells. These phospholipases are involved in lysis of red blood cells, white blood cells, and tissue cells.

Bacterial pathogens also produce various protein-digesting enzymes, or proteases. Proteases can be classified according to their substrate target (e.g., serine proteases target proteins with the amino acid serine) or if they contain metals in their active site (e.g., zinc metalloproteases contain a zinc ion, which is necessary for enzymatic activity).

One example of a protease that contains a metal ion is the exoenzyme collagenase. Collagenase digests collagen, the dominant protein in connective tissue. Collagen can be found in the extracellular matrix, especially near mucosal membranes, blood vessels, nerves, and in the layers of the skin. Similar to hyaluronidase, collagenase allows the pathogen to penetrate and spread through the host tissue by digesting this connective tissue protein. The collagenase produced by the gram-positive bacterium Clostridium perfringens, for example, allows the bacterium to make its way through the tissue layers and subsequently enter and multiply in the blood (septicemia). C. perfringens then uses toxins and a phospholipase to cause cellular lysis and necrosis. Once the host cells have died, the bacterium produces gas by fermenting the muscle carbohydrates. The widespread necrosis of tissue and accompanying gas are characteristic of the condition known as gas gangrene.

The illustration depicts a blood vessel with a single layer of endothelial cells surrounding the lumen and dense connective tissue (shown in red) surrounding the endothelial cell layer. Collagenase produced by C. perfringens degrades the collagen between the endothelial cells, allowing the bacteria to enter the bloodstream. (credit illustration: modification of work by Bruce Blaus; credit micrograph: Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)


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


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