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    Staphylococcus aureus is an important cause of corneal infections (keratitis). To better understand the virulence mechanisms mediating keratitis, a recent comparative genomics study revealed that a set of secreted enterotoxins were found with higher prevalence among ocular versus non-ocular S. aureus clinical infection isolates, suggesting a key role for these toxins in keratitis. Although well known to cause toxic shock syndrome and S. aureus food poisoning, enterotoxins have not yet been shown to mediate virulence in keratitis. A set of clinical isolate test strains, including a keratitis isolate that encodes five enterotoxins (sed, sej, sek, seq, ser), its corresponding enterotoxin deletion mutant and complementation strain, a keratitis isolate devoid of enterotoxins, and the non-ocular S. aureus strain USA300 along with its corresponding enterotoxin deletion and complementation strains, were evaluated for cellular adhesion, invasion and cytotoxicity in a primary corneal epithelial model as well as with microscopy. Additionally, strains were evaluated in an in vivo model of keratitis to quantify enterotoxin gene expression and measure disease severity. We demonstrate that, although enterotoxins do not impact bacterial adhesion or invasion, they do elicit direct cytotoxicity in vitro toward corneal epithelial cells. In an in vivo model, sed, sej, sek, seq, ser were found to have variable gene expression across 72 hours of infection and test strains encoding enterotoxins resulted in increased bacterial burden as well as a reduced host cytokine response. Our results support a novel role for staphylococcal enterotoxins in promoting virulence in S. aureus keratitis.


    William L Johnson, Michael Sohn, Collynn F Woeller, Rachel A F Wozniak. Staphylococcal Enterotoxins Promote Virulence in Bacterial Keratitis. Investigative ophthalmology & visual science. 2023 May 01;64(5):5

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    PMID: 37133835

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