The long journey of botulinum neurotoxins into the synapse

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Botulinum neurotoxins (BoNT) cause the disease botulism, a flaccid paralysis of the muscle. They are also very effective, widely used medicines applied locally in sub-nanogram quantities. BoNTs are released together with several non-toxic, associated proteins as progenitor toxin complexes (PCT) by Clostridium botulinum to become highly potent oral poisons ingested via contaminated food. They block the neurotransmission in susceptible animals and humans already in nanogram quantities due to their specific ability to enter motoneurons and to cleave only selected neuronal proteins involved in neuroexocytosis.

BoNTs have developed a sophisticated strategy to passage the gastrointestinal tract and to be absorbed in the intestine of the host to finally attack neurons. A non-toxic non-hemagglutinin (NTNHA) forms a binary complex with BoNT to protect it from gastrointestinal degradation. This binary M-PTC is one component of the bi-modular 14-subunit ˜760 kDa large progenitor toxin complex. The other component is the structurally and functionally independent dodecameric hemagglutinin (HA) complex which facilitates the absorption on the intestinal epithelium by glycan binding. Subsequent to its transcytosis the HA complex disrupts the tight junction of the intestinal barrier from the basolateral side by binding to E–cadherin. Now, the L-PTC can also enter the circulation by paracellular routes in much larger quantities. From here, the dissociated BoNTs reach the neuromuscular junction and accumulate via interaction with polysialo gangliosides, complex glycolipids, on motoneurons at the neuromuscular junction. Subsequently, additional specific binding to luminal segments of synaptic vesicles proteins like SV2 and synaptotagmin leads to their uptake. Finally, the neurotoxins shut down the synaptic vesicle cycle, which they had exploited before to enter their target cells, via specific cleavage of soluble N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive factor attachment protein receptor (SNARE) proteins, which constitute the core components of the cellular membrane fusion machinery.

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