Cells survive exposure to bacterial pore-forming toxins, such as streptolysin O (SLO), through mechanisms that remain unclear. Previous studies have suggested that these toxins are cleared by endocytosis. However, the experiments reported here failed to reveal any evidence for endocytosis of SLO, nor did they reveal any signs of damage to endosomal membranes predicted from such endocytosis. Instead, we illustrate that SLO induces a characteristic form of plasma membrane blebbing that allows cells to shed SLO by the process known as ectocytosis. Specifically, 'deep-etch' electron microscopy of cells exposed to SLO illustrates that the toxin is rapidly sequestered into domains in the plasmalemma greatly enriched in SLO pores, and these domains bleb outwards and bud from the cell surface into the medium. Such ectocytosis is even observed in cells that have been chemically fixed before exposure to SLO, suggesting that it is caused by a direct physical action of the toxin on the cell membrane, rather than by an active cellular reaction. We conclude, therefore, that ectocytosis is an important means for SLO clearance and hypothesize that this is a primary method by which cells defend themselves generally against pore-forming toxins.
- Pore-forming toxin