Toxin-antitoxins and bacterial virulence

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Bacterial virulence relies on a delicate balance of signals interchanged between the invading microbe and the host. This communication has been extensively perceived as a battle involving harmful molecules produced by the pathogen and host defenses. In this review, we focus on a largely unexplored element of this dialogue, as are toxin–antitoxin (TA) systems of the pathogen. TA systems are reported to respond to stresses that are also found in the host and, as a consequence, could modulate the physiology of the intruder microbe. This view is consistent with recent studies that demonstrate a contribution of distinct TA systems to virulence since their absence alters the course of the infection. TA loci are stress response modules that, therefore, could readjust pathogen metabolism to favor the generation of slow-growing or quiescent cells ‘before’ host defenses irreversibly block essential pathogen activities. Some toxins of these TA modules have been proposed as potential weapons used by the pathogen to act on host targets. We discuss all these aspects based on studies that support some TA modules as important regulators in the pathogen–host interface.

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