Virulence Factors for Survival in the Host and Immune Evasion


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(a) A micrograph of capsules around bacterial cells. (b) Antibodies normally function by binding to antigens, molecules on the surface of pathogenic bacteria. Phagocytes then bind to the antibody, initiatingphagocytosis. (c) Some bacteria also produce proteases, virulence factors that break down host antibodies to evade Virulence Factors for Survival in the Host and Immune Evasionphagocytosis. (credit a: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

Evading the immune system is also important to invasiveness. Bacteria use a variety of virulence factors to evade phagocytosis by cells of the immune system. For example, many bacteria produce capsules, which are used in adhesion but also aid in immune evasion by preventing ingestion by phagocytes. The composition of the capsule prevents immune cells from being able to adhere and then phagocytose the cell. In addition, the capsule makes the bacterial cell much larger, making it harder for immune cells to engulf the pathogen. A notable capsule-producing bacterium is the gram-positive pathogen Streptococcus pneumoniae, which causes pneumococcal pneumonia, meningitis, septicemia, and other respiratory tract infections. Encapsulated strains of S. pneumoniae are more virulent than nonencapsulated strains and are more likely to invade the bloodstream and cause septicemia and meningitis.

Some pathogens can also produce proteases to protect themselves against phagocytosis. The human immune system produces antibodies that bind to surface molecules found on specific bacteria (e.g., capsules, fimbriae, flagella, LPS). This binding initiates phagocytosis and other mechanisms of antibacterial killing and clearance. Proteases combat antibody-mediated killing and clearance by attacking and digesting the antibody molecules.

In addition to capsules and proteases, some bacterial pathogens produce other virulence factors that allow them to evade the immune system. The fimbriae of certain species of Streptococcus contain M protein, which alters the surface of Streptococcus and inhibits phagocytosis by blocking the binding of the complement molecules that assist phagocytes in ingesting bacterial pathogens. The acid-fast bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis (the causative agent of tuberculosis) produces a waxy substance known as mycolic acid in its cell envelope. When it is engulfed by phagocytes in the lung, the protective mycolic acid coat enables the bacterium to resist some of the killing mechanisms within the phagolysosome.

Some bacteria produce virulence factors that promote infection by exploiting molecules naturally produced by the host. For example, most strains of Staphylococcus aureus produce the exoenzyme coagulase, which exploits the natural mechanism of blood clotting to evade the immune system. Normally, blood clotting is triggered in response to blood vessel damage; platelets begin to plug the clot, and a cascade of reactions occurs in which fibrinogen, a soluble protein made by the liver, is cleaved into fibrin. Fibrin is an insoluble, thread-like protein that binds to blood platelets, cross-links, and contracts to form a mesh of clumped platelets and red blood cells. The resulting clot prevents further loss of blood from the damaged blood vessels. However, if bacteria release coagulase into the bloodstream, the fibrinogen-to-fibrin cascade is triggered in the absence of blood vessel damage. The resulting clot coats the bacteria in fibrin, protecting the bacteria from exposure to phagocytic immune cells circulating in the bloodstream.

Whereas coagulase causes blood to clot, kinases have the opposite effect by triggering the conversion of plasminogen to plasmin, which is involved in the digestion of fibrin clots. By digesting a clot, kinases allow pathogens trapped in the clot to escape and spread, similar to the way that collagenase, hyaluronidase, and DNAse facilitate the spread of infection. Examples of kinases include staphylokinases and streptokinases, produced by Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes, respectively. It is intriguing that S. aureus can produce both coagulase to promote clotting and staphylokinase to stimulate the digestion of clots. The action of the coagulase provides an important protective barrier from the immune system, but when nutrient supplies are diminished or other conditions signal a need for the pathogen to escape and spread, the production of staphylokinase can initiate this process.

A final mechanism that pathogens can use to protect themselves against the immune system is called antigenic variation, which is the alteration of surface proteins so that a pathogen is no longer recognized by the host’s immune system. For example, the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease, contains a surface lipoprotein known as VlsE. Because of genetic recombination during DNA replication and repair, this bacterial protein undergoes antigenic variation. Each time fever occurs, the VlsE protein in B. burgdorferi can differ so much that antibodies against previous VlsE sequences are not effective. It is believed that this variation in the VlsE contributes to the ability B. burgdorferi to cause chronic disease. Another important human bacterial pathogen that uses antigenic variation to avoid the immune system is Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which causes the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea. This bacterium is well known for its ability to undergo antigenic variation of its type IV pili to avoid immune defenses.


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