Published on Wed Aug 11 2021

Structure-function analysis of distant diphtheria toxin homologs reveals insights into host adaptation

Sugiman-Marangos, S. N., Gill, S. K., Mansfield, M. J., Orrell, K. E., Doxey, A. C., Melnyk, R. A.

Diphtheria toxin (DT) has played a central role in defining the field of toxinology since its discovery in 1888. origins and molecular evolution of DT host specialization remain unknown. We determined high-resolution structures of two recently discovered distant homologs of DT.

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Abstract

Diphtheria toxin (DT) is the archetype of bacterial exotoxins implicated in human diseases and has played a central role in defining the field of toxinology since its discovery in 1888. Despite being one of the most extensively characterized bacterial toxins, the origins and molecular evolution of DT host specialization remain unknown. Here, we determined high-resolution structures of two recently discovered distant homologs of DT. These DT-like proteins from non-human associated Streptomyces albireticuli (17% identity to DT) and Seinonella peptonophila (20% identity to DT) display remarkable structural similarity to DT enabling a comparative investigation into DT's unique toxicity toward mammalian cells. We find that the individual domains of DT-like toxins retain two critical features of DT's activity: full catalytic function and ability to translocate across mammalian cell membranes. However, we show that receptor-binding, pH-dependent pore-formation and proteolytic release of the cytotoxic enzyme into the cytosol are not optimized for human cell physiology and thus unable to efficiently deliver the cytotoxic cargo into human hosts. Our work provides structural insights into DT's evolutionary history, and implies key transitions required for the emergence of human-specificity of a major bacterial exotoxin with an important history in human disease.