© 2005 Nature Publishing Group
Moyne Institute of
Trinity College, Dublin 2,
Staphylococcus aureus permanently colonizes the moist
squamous epithelium of the anterior nares of 20% of the
population, and is transiently associated with another
60%1. Occasionally, the organism can cause super-
ficial skin infections such as abscesses and impetigo,
or serious invasive infections such as septic arthritis,
osteomyelitis and endocarditis2. Colonization is a
known risk factor for invasive disease both in the hos-
pital and the community3,4. Hospital patients who have
been catherized or who have undergone surgery are at
increased risk of infection. Treatment of infections with
antibiotics has become increasingly difficult owing to
the widespread occurrence of strains that are resistant
to multiple antibiotics, known as meticillin (formerly
methicillin)-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Furthermore, the isolation of MRSA strains that have
also become resistant to vancomycin5,6, the last drug to
which the organism had been uniformly sensitive, raises
the spectre of a return to the pre-antibiotic era.
The primary defence against S. aureus infection
is the innate immunity provided by neutrophils. It is
now apparent that S. aureus has the ability to thwart the
neutrophil in various ways. In addition, the organism
secretes immunomodulatory proteins that compromise
both induced humoral and cell-mediated immunity.
This might explain why many individuals can suffer
repeated infections. Antibody levels are often too low
to be protective, and the host is unable to respond to
re-infection with a robust secondary response owing
to depletion of T and B cells.
Virulence factors of S. aureus
S. aureus expresses a wide array of secreted and cell-
surface-associated virulence factors, including surface
proteins that promote adhesion to damaged tissue and
to the surface of host cells7, that bind proteins in blood
to help evade immune responses, and that promote
iron uptake8. Most strains express a polysaccharide
capsule9. The organism can secrete an array of extra-
cellular enzymes such as proteases, a hyaluronidase,
a lipase and a nuclease that facilitate tissue destruc-
tion and spreading, membrane-damaging toxins that
cause cytolytic effects on host cells and tissue damage,
and superantigens that contribute to the symptoms of
One major class of surface-located proteins comprises
those that are covalently anchored to cell-wall peptido-
glycan by sortase, a membrane-associated enzyme that
IMMUNE EVASION BY
Timothy J. Foster
Abstract | Staphylococcus aureus can cause superficial skin infections and, occasionally, deep-
seated infections that entail spread through the blood stream. The organism expresses several
factors that compromise the effectiveness of neutrophils and macrophages, the first line of
defence against infection. S. aureus secretes proteins that inhibit complement activation and
neutrophil chemotaxis or that lyse neutrophils, neutralizes antimicrobial defensin peptides, and
its cell surface is modified to reduce their effectiveness. The organism can survive in
phagosomes, express polysaccharides and proteins that inhibit opsonization by antibody and
complement, and its cell wall is resistant to lysozyme. Furthermore, S. aureus expresses
several types of superantigen that corrupt the normal humoral immune response, resulting in
anergy and immunosuppression. In contrast, Staphylococcus epidermidis must rely primarily
on cell-surface polymers and the ability to form a biolfilm to survive in the host.
948 | DECEMBER 2005 | VOLUME 3
© 2005 Nature Publishing Group
Bacterial surface Bacterial surface
c Alternative pathway and amplification loop
a Classical pathway
b Lectin pathway
recognizes and cleaves the C-terminal LPXTG motif in
the sorting signal7,12. Other wall- and surface-associated
proteins are loosely bound through ionic interactions.
Host defences against infection
When the outer physical barriers of the body, com-
prising skin and mucous surfaces, have been breached
by S. aureus, the organism is confronted by the host’s
immune system, comprising both innate and acquired
responses. S. aureus infection of the skin stimulates a
strong inflammatory response, involving the migration
of neutrophils and macrophages to the site of infec-
tion. These cells will attempt to engulf and dispose
of the invading organisms with the help of available
antibodies that are present in the host’s serum, and
complement. This is where the first important internal
confrontation between S. aureus and the host occurs.
Complement is a family of proteins and proteolytic
fragments derived from them that have many roles
in innate and acquired immunity, including direct
killing of foreign cells and regulation of other effec-
tors of the immune response13. With bacteria such as
S. aureus, the role of complement is to recruit effector
molecules that label cells and target them for destruc-
tion by immune effector cells such as neutrophils. This
process of complement fixation occurs by three path-
ways (FIG. 1). The alternative and lectin pathways are
components of innate immunity, whereas the classical
pathway requires specific interaction with antibody
that has bound to antigens on target cells. One of the
main purposes of complement fixation is opsoniza-
tion — to promote phagocytosis by neutrophils and
macrophages. Initially, the phagocytes are attracted
to the site of infection by chemoattractant molecules
Figure 1 | Pathways for complement activation. a | The classical pathway is initiated by the binding of the C1 complex to
antibodies that are bound to antigens on the surface of bacteria. The C1 complex consists of C1q and two molecules each of
C1r and C1s. The binding of the recognition subcomponent C1q to the Fc portion of immunoglobulins results in autoactivation
of the serine protease C1r. C1r then cleaves and activates C1s, which translates the activation of the C1 complex into
complement activation through the cleavage of C4 and C2 to form a C4bC2a enzyme complex. C4bC2a acts as a C3
convertase and cleaves C3, which results in products that bind to, and cause the destruction of, invading bacteria. b | The lectin
pathway is initiated by the binding of either mannose-binding lectin (MBL) or ficolin — associated with MBL-associated serine
protease 1 (MASP1), MASP2, MASP3 and small MBL-associated protein (sMAP) — to an array of carbohydrate groups on the
surface of a bacterial cell. Similar to C1s, MASP2 is responsible for the activation of C4 and C2, which leads to the generation of
the same C3 convertase (C4bC2a). As in the classical pathway, C3 convertase cleaves C3 to C3b and the chemoattractant
peptide C3a. The C3b–C2a–C4b complex then cleaves C5 to C5a and the chemoattractant peptide C5b, which stimulates
assembly of factors C6, C7, C8 and C9 (not shown). MASP1 is able to cleave C3 directly. c | The alternative pathway is initiated
by the low-grade activation of C3 by hydrolysed C3 (C3(H2O)) and activated factor B (Bb). The activated C3b binds factor B (B),
which is then cleaved into Bb by factor D (D) to form the alternative pathway C3 convertase, C3bBb. Once C3b is attached to
the cell surface, the amplification loop consisting of the alternative-pathway components is activated, and the C3-convertase
enzymes cleave many molecules of C3 to C3b, which bind covalently around the site of complement activation. Image
reproduced with permission from Nature Reviews Immunology REF. 133 © (2002) Macmillan Magazines Ltd.
NATURE REVIEWS | MICROBIOLOGY
VOLUME 3 | DECEMBER 2005 | 949
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Formyl peptide receptor
Figure 2 | Inhibition of the neutrophil response to
infection. a | The chemotaxis inhibitory protein of
staphylococci (CHIPS) and the extracellular adherence protein
(Eap) interfere with neutrophil chemotaxis and extravasation.
Resistance to killing by antimicrobial peptides in the neutrophil
phagosome is promoted by D-alanine and L-lysine
modifications to cell-wall components (indicated by +), by
secretion of staphylokinase (Sak) and aureolysin (Aur), and by
the creation of ‘spacious’ phagosomes in which bacteria can
survive. The pore-forming leukotoxins are shown by the
mushroom-shaped insertion in the neutrophil membrane.
b | Model for interactions between CHIPS and the formyl
peptide receptor (FPR) and C5a receptor. Two distinct but
closely linked binding domains in CHIPS are indicated, one for
the extreme N terminus of FPR involving residues F1 and F3,
the second for a domain located between residues 10–20 of
the C5a receptor. F-MP, N-formyl-methionyl peptide; ICAM-1,
intercellular adhesion molecule-1; LFA-1, lymphocyte-function-
such as small peptide fragments (C3a and C5a) that
are released during complement activation, and by
formylated peptides released by growing bacteria. The
membranes of phagocytic cells have specific receptors
for fragments of complement and formylated peptides
that enhance the efficiency of phagocytosis. The neu-
trophils also carry specific receptors that can recog-
nize the Fc region of immunoglobulin G (IgG) and
complement proteins bound to the bacterial surface
that facilitate efficient uptake and killing.
At the initial stage of the host immune response
to infection, the invading microorganism and its
products are taken up by macrophages and other
antigen-presenting cells and transported to lymph
nodes, where B cells are stimulated to differentiate
and secrete antibodies that neutralize toxins and pro-
mote more efficient phagocytosis of bacterial cells. It
is clear that this system does not work properly in the
case of S. aureus. Antibodies to S. aureus antigens are
present in all humans, and there is evidence that titres
rise following infection14–16. However, these antibodies
and immunological memory seem to be insufficient to
prevent subsequent infections.
S. aureus has been regarded as a non-invasive
pathogen but it is now evident that the bacterium
can invade many types of host cells by a mechanism
involving the formation of a fibronectin bridge
between the bacterial fibronectin-binding proteins
and host α5β1 integrin molecules that triggers
internalization17–19. The organism can survive in host
cells in a semi-dormant form referred to as small
colony variants20. A cell-mediated immune response
is required to dispose of cells bearing intracellular
bacteria. However, there is little known about the
role of cell-mediated immunity in combating chronic
In this article, I review the recent advances in our
understanding of the various mechanisms employed
by staphylococci that allow them to avoid innate
and acquired immunity. In particular, the immune-
evasion strategies of S. aureus and the less virulent
Staphylococcus epidermidis are compared, and reference
is also made to streptococci. This analysis supports the
notion that S.aureus is a well adapted pathogen that has
evolved its pathogenic potential as a result of thousands
of years of coexistence with man.
Inhibition of neutrophil chemotaxis
Immediately as the bacterium gains a foothold in the
host and starts to grow, several chemo attractants are
liberated which are specifically recognized by neutro-
phils at low concentrations, resulting in a strong
chemotactic response. The peptide fragments C3a
and C5a, released by complement activation, as well
as formylated peptides secreted from growing bacte-
rial cells, are recognized at high affinity by specific
transmembrane G-protein-coupled receptors on
the neutrophil surface21. These are stimulated and
activate intracellular signalling cascades, resulting in
migration of neutrophils from the blood to the site of
About 60% of S. aureus strains secrete the chemotaxis
inhibitory protein of staphylococci CHIPS that can bind
avidly to both the formyl peptide receptor (FPR) and
the C5a receptor (C5aR) to block the cognate agonist
from binding22 (FIG. 2; TABLE 1. Recent studies identified
a FPR-binding domain in the N terminus of CHIPS, and
showed that Phe residues at positions 1 and 3 are crucial
for activity23. Furthermore, the C5aR-binding domain of
CHIPS is distinct from the FPR-binding domain (FIG. 2).
The C5aR- and FPR-binding activities of CHIPS were
separated by specific amino-acid substitutions and the
specificity of blocking monoclonal antibodies24,25. In
the case of C5aR, CHIPS blocks the N-terminal C5a-
peptide-binding domain but does not occlude a second
activation domain located towards the C terminus.
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One of the many ligands recognized by the extra-
cellular adherence protein Eap (otherwise called the
major histocompatibility class II analogue protein Map)
is intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) on the
surface of endothelial cells26. Binding of Eap to ICAM-1
blocks binding of the lymphocyte-function-associated
antigen LFA-1 on the surface of neutrophils and pre-
vents leucocyte adhesion, diapadesis and extravasation.
The Eap protein will likely act in concert with CHIPS to
inhibit neutrophil recruitment to the site of infection
Toxins that kill leukocytes
One of the cardinal features of S. aureus is the ability
to secrete toxins that damage the membranes of host
cells. The expression of cytolytic toxins that damage
leukotoxins contributes to development of abscesses by
the killing of neutrophils that are attempting to engulf
and kill bacteria.
Cytolytic toxins that form β-barrel pores in the
cytoplasmic membranes of target cells cause leakage
and, ultimately, lysis. The archetype of this class is the
α-toxin, which is secreted as a monomer that associates
into a heptamer in the membrane, with β-strands from
each monomer assembling into a 14-stranded β-barrel
pore27. The bicomponent leukotoxins comprise two
subunits that are secreted separately and assemble
into hexameric or heptameric oligomers with a strong
affinity for leukocytes. There are four types of bicom-
ponent leukotoxin, the γ-toxin or γ-haemolysin (Hlg),
the Panton–Valentine leukocidin (PVL), leukocidin E/
D and leukocidin M/F-PV-like. The γ-toxin lyses both
erythrocytes and leukocytes, whereas PVL is toxic only
for leukocytes28. The hlg genes are present in the chro-
mosome of >90% of randomly selected S. aureus strains,
whereas the pvl genes, which are present in a lysogenic
bacteriophage, are found in only 1–2%29,30 TABLE 1.
There is a strong association between PVL expres-
sion and severe skin infections such as recurrent
furunculosis30, indicating that PVL enhances virulence
in these infections. Recently, community-acquired
MRSA (CA-MRSA) strains have emerged that cause
severe necrotizing pneumonia and contagious, severe
skin infections in previously healthy individuals31,32.
These strains are characterized by carriage of the
type IV or type V staphylococcal cassette chromosome
(SCCmec), encoding resistance to meticillin and other
β-lactam antibiotics33, and often by expression of PVL
(encoded by pvl genes located in a lysogenic bacterio-
phage34). It is likely that these virulent strains have
emerged as the result of horizontal transfer of PVL
phages and SCCmecIV and V elements. However, not
all CA-MRSA strains express PVL35.
Table 1 | Prevalence of factors responsible for immune avoidance by Staphylococcus aureus
Factor AbbreviationDistribution (% strains tested)Refs
Protein ASpa 90/94*29
Clumping factor AClfA 98/100*29
Capsular polysaccharide serotypes 5 and 8Cps Type 5: 16–26‡, Type 8: 55–65‡
Chemotaxis inhibitory proteinCHIPS 62*§
MHC Class II analogous protein/extracellular
Map/Eap 93/96*; 97*29,129
Extracellular fibrinogen binding proteinEfb60/68*, 80*29,130
Panton-Valentine leukocidin PVL 2/4*, 2‡
Enterotoxin ASea17/32*, 54‡
Enterotoxin BSeb 7/9*, 4‡ 29,30
Enterotoxin CSec 11/10*, 5‡
Enterotoxin DSed5/5*, 10‡ 29,30
Enterotoxin GSeg64/55* 29
Toxic shock syndrome toxin-1 TSST-1 25/30*, 33‡
*Detected by PCR. ‡Detected by expression of the protein or polysaccharide. ¶Southern blotting. Failure to detect an amplimer by PCR
without confirmation by DNA hybridization might give an underestimate of the presence of a gene. Variation in the incidence of genes
from different studies might reflect differences in the sources of the strains tested. A large number of randomly selected nasal-carriage
isolates will give an even representation, whereas those selected from nosocomial infections from a single hospital might be biased by
the presence of endemic strains (for example, endemic meticillin-resistant S. aureus clones). In the study by Peacock et al.29, the first
of the two numbers refer to the percentage of strains from carriage isolates that were positive by PCR, whereas the second number is
the percentage of invasive disease-causing strains from both community-acquired and nosocomial infections. For Cps5 and Cps8, the
two numbers refer to the range determined by several different studies. §The distribution of CHIPS is similar to Sak and Sea because
the three factors are encoded by closely linked genes associated with a family of lysogenic bacteriophages.
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e ClfA binding
c Protein A binding IgG
Resistance to phagocytosis
The ability of S. aureus to avoid opsonins present in
normal serum is an important factor in the success
of infection. Antibodies that recognize cell-surface
components such as teichoic acid, peptidoglycan and
surface-associated proteins are present in sera of most,
if not all, individuals. S. aureus expresses surface-associ-
ated anti-opsonic proteins and a polysaccharide capsule
that can both interfere with the deposition of antibodies
and complement formation by classical and alternative
pathways, or with their access to neutrophil comple-
ment receptor and Fc receptor. Therefore, efficient
phagocytosis by neutrophils that requires recognition
of bound complement and antibody is compromised.
Surface proteins. Protein A is a wall-anchored protein
with either four or five domains that each bind to the
Fc region of IgG36. The X-ray structure of protein A
IgG-binding domains in complex with the Fc region
of IgG have been solved37, and residues from helix I
that are involved in the interaction have been identified
and verified by site-directed mutagenesis38. The conse-
quence of the interaction between protein A and IgG is
to coat the surface of the cell with IgG molecules that
are in the incorrect orientation to be recognized by the
neutrophil Fc receptor FIG. 3. This could explain the
antiphagocytic effect of protein A and its role in patho-
genesis of S. aureus infections. Protein-A-deficient
mutants of S. aureus are phagocytosed more efficiently
by neutrophils in vitro39 and show decreased virulence
in several animal infection models40,41.
Clumping factor A (ClfA) is the dominant
fibrinogen-binding protein present on the surface of
S. aureus cells in the stationary phase of growth42,43.
Unlike most surface proteins, which are expressed
predominantly during the exponential phase, the
clfA gene is switched on in the stationary phase
from a σB-dependent promoter43, which ensures that
about 10-fold more ClfA is present compared to the
exponential phase42, when the clfA gene is expressed
at a lower level from a weaker σ70-dependent pro-
moter. The N-terminal A domain of ClfA binds to
the γ-chain of fibrinogen molecules44. When cells are
densely packed together in suspension, the γ-chain C
termini, which are located at either end of the bivalent
molecule, can bind simultaneously to two ClfA mol-
ecules on different cells, which results in cell clump-
ing. However, in vivo the density of cells is too low for
clumping to occur. Instead, bacterial cells are coated
with fibrinogen molecules as shown in FIG. 3.
ClfA is a virulence factor in the murine model
for sepsis and arthritis45. It was postulated that viru-
lence is enhanced during the bacteraemic phase of
the infection as well as during growth in infected
joints because bacterial cells became coated with
fibrinogen, which in turn inhibited deposition of,
or access to, opsonins. This notion is supported by
the observation that ClfA protects S. aureus from
phagocytosis by murine macrophages46 and by
human neutrophils (J. Higgins and T.F., unpublished
results) and that protection is at least partly depend-
ent on fibrinogen. It is likely that fibronectin-bind-
ing proteins and ClfB, which also bind fibrinogen47,48,
can protect the bacterium in a similar way during the
exponential phase of growth, when these proteins are
expressed in greater abundance than ClfA.
Capsule. Most S. aureus clinical isolates express a
thin microcapsular layer that is composed of sero-
type 5, serotype 8 or serotype 336 capsular poly-
saccharide9,49 TABLE 1. Whether the small proportion
of untypable strains express other types of capsule or
are non-capsulated is not known. Expression of type
5 and type 8 capsule is associated with increased
virulence in animal infection models50–53. In vitro
phagocytosis assays revealed that the presence of the
capsule reduced the uptake of cells by neutrophils
in the presence of normal serum opsonins, indicat-
ing that capsule is anti-opsonic51,52. Complement
factors can assemble on the cell-wall surface under-
neath the polysaccharide, but presumably these are
inaccessible to complement receptor on the surface
of neutrophils. By contrast, high levels of specific
anti-capsular polysaccharide antibodies promote
opsonophagocytosis and protect against infection9,54.
Many strains of S. aureus carry genes that specify
the polysaccharide intercellular adhesin (PIA), an
extra cellular polysaccharide that is of particular
importance for S. epidermidis infections. The role
of this polymer in biofilm formation and avoid-
ance of phagocytosis is discussed in the section on
Figure 3 | Mechanisms by which Staphylococcus aureus avoids opsonophagocytosis.
The figure illustrates (a) the capsular polysaccharide, which can compromise neutrophil access
to bound complement and antibody; (b) the extracellular staphylokinase (Sak), which activates
cell-bound plasminogen and cleaves IgG and C3b; (c) protein A with 5 immunoglobulin G (IgG)
Fc-binding domains; (d) fibrinogen-binding protein (Efb), which binds complement factor C3
and blocks its deposition on the bacterial cell surface. Complement activation beyond C3b
attachment is prevented, thereby inhibiting opsonization. (e) Clumping factor A (ClfA), which
binds the γ-chain of fibrinogen.
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Inactivation of complement. Assembly of C3 conver-
tases on the surface of bacteria is a prerequisite for
complement activation. The structurally and function-
ally related C4bC2a (classical and lectin pathways) and
C3bBb (alternative pathway) carry out the essential
function of cleaving C3, which results in release of
soluble C3a and covalent attachment of C3b to the
bacterium. S. aureus secretes a 9.8-kDa protein called
Staphylococcus complement inhibitor (SCIN), which
binds to and stabilizes both C4bC2a and C3bBb, result-
ing in inhibition of further C3b formation55. Normally,
the C3 convertases are transiently active, with dissocia-
tion leaving microorganism-bound C4b and C3b to act
as cofactors for further cleavage of C2 and factor B,
respectively. Stabilization of the complexes by SCIN
blocks this crucial amplification loop and is a potent
mechanism for preventing complement activation.
SCIN can therefore block phagocytosis and killing of
S. aureus cells by human neutrophils.
The extracellular fibrinogen-binding protein Efb
was recently shown to bind to complement factor C3
and to block C3 deposition on the bacterial cell sur-
face56–58. Therefore, complement activation beyond C3b
attachment (FIG. 3) was prevented and opsonization was
S. aureus also has the ability to inactivate comple-
ment factor C3b and IgG molecules that are bound to
the surface of opsonized bacterial cells. Host plasmino-
gen molecules attach to the bacterial cell surface, where
they are bound in 1:1 stoichiometry by staphylokinase,
a plasminogen activator protein that is secreted by
S. aureus. The potent serine protease of plasmin is
activated and cleaves surface-bound C3b and IgG,
resulting in reduced phagocytosis by neutrophils59.
Resistance to killing by antimicrobial peptides
If S. aureus is successfully engulfed by a neutrophil,
it is well endowed with surface modifications to help
it survive in the phagosome. In in vitro neutrophil
phagocytosis assays, a significant fraction of engulfed
bacterial cells survive killing mechanisms60,61. This is
in part due to natural modifications to wall teichoic
acid (WTA), lipoteichoic acid and to a membrane
phospholipid. The Dlt proteins result in d-alanine
substitutions of ribitol teichoic acid and lipoteichoic
acid that partially neutralize the negative charge of the
cell surface that attracts cationic molecules62 FIG. 2.
Similarly, the MprF protein adds an l-lysine residue to
phosphatidylglycerol that is exposed on the outer face
of the cytoplasmic membrane63,64. In both cases, the
modifications reduce the affinity of the cationic, anti-
microbial defensin peptides BOX 1 that are secreted
into the neutrophil phagosome and repel them from
cytoplasmic membrane. In addition, these modifica-
tions serve to protect bacteria from positively charged
antimicrobial proteins in serum, such as phospho-
lipase A2 and lactoferrin. Mutants defective in Dlt
and MprF are more susceptible to killing by cationic
antimicrobial proteins and neutrophils in vitro, and
have markedly reduced virulence in several animal
In addition to modification of negatively charged
surface molecules, S. aureus also secretes proteins that
neutralize cationic peptides. Staphylokinase, a pro-
thrombin activator that stimulates dissolution of fibrin
clots and degradation of IgG and C3, also has potent
defensin-peptide-binding activity. It binds defensins
with a stoichiometry of approximately 1:6 and con-
tributes to protection of bacteria in vivo67,68. Also, the
extracellular metalloprotease aureolysin cleaves and
inactivates the human defensin peptide cathelicidin
LL-37 and contributes significantly to resistance to the
peptide in vitro69.
Resistance to lysozyme
Lysozyme is a bactericidal protein that is an important
part of the innate defences against bacterial infection.
It is a muramidase that cleaves the glycosidic linkage
between N-acetylglucosamine and N-acetyl muramic
acid of cell-wall peptidoglycan, causing cell lysis. The
enzyme is present in many body fluids and is expressed
at enhanced levels by phagocytic cells that have been
stimulated by proinflammatory signals during infec-
tion70. The biochemical basis of the complete resistance
of S. aureus to lysozyme was recently attributed to a
membrane-bound O-acetyltransferase that modified
the C6 hydroxyl group of muramic acid71. A mutant in
the O-acetyltransferase became sensitive to lysozyme,
whereas complementation with the wild-type gene
restored acetylation and lysozyme resistance.
S. aureus can survive in neutrophil phagosomes
The importance of neutrophils in the defence against
staphylococcal infection is reflected by recurrent
infections suffered by individuals with chronic
granulomatous disease (CGD), a disease caused by
defects in genes encoding the subunits of NADPH
phagocyte oxidase, which normally generates super-
oxide radicals during the respiratory burst72,73, and
is supported by studies with neutrophil-depleted
mice74,75. S. aureus has several mechanisms that
Box 1 | Antimicrobial peptides
Peptides with antimicrobial activity are important components of innate immunity.
In humans, they are produced in tissues and by cells such as platelets and
neutrophils, and are present on mucosal surfaces, in the airways and on skin.
Antimicrobial activity is generally due to disruption of the integrity of lipid bilayers,
but in some cases more specific inhibitory modes of action might occur.
Antimicrobial peptides can be classified as follows123:
• Small anionic peptides, for example, dermicidin and peptides found in airway
• Small cationic peptides lacking cysteine residues, for example, human LL-37, a
cathelicidin found in neutrophils. These peptides are often disordered in aqueous
solution but form an α-helix in a hydrophobic environment such as a lipid bilayer.
• Cationic peptides that form disulphide bonds, for example, protegrin, α-defensins
such as human neutrophil peptides, and human β-defensins.
• Anionic and cationic peptide fragments derived from larger proteins, for example,
lactoferricin from lactoferrin, cascocidin from casein and antimicrobial domains
of haemoglobin, lysozyme and ovalbumin. The role of this class in innate
immunity is untested.
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contribute to its innate resistance to phagocytic
killing, including interference with endosome fusion
and release of antimicrobial substances76 by factors
that are dependent on the global regulator SarA.
In addition, the bacterium avoids the lethal effects
of oxygen free radicals that are formed during the
respiratory burst by several mechanisms.
Intriguingly, the yellow carotenoid pigment of
S. aureus contributes by scavenging oxygen free radi-
cals77. A mutant defective in synthesis of pigment was
more susceptible to killing by neutrophils in vitro and
was less virulent in a mouse cutaneous-abscess infec-
tion model. Furthermore, neutrophils from a human
CGD patient had a similar aberrant effect on the
mutant and wild-type bacteria.
S. aureus expresses two superoxide dismutase
enzymes that remove O2
in these enzymes have reduced virulence in a murine
abscess model, indicating a role for combating oxida-
tive stress in vivo. Manganese homeostasis is also an
important innate defence mechanism against oxida-
tive stress because of the divalent cation’s ability to act
as a non-enzymatic superoxide dismutase79. Mutants
defective in Mn2+ uptake also lacked virulence in a
murine abscess model. Reactive oxygen compounds
can damage proteins by oxidizing the sulphur atom of
methionine (to form methionine sulphoxide). S. aureus
expresses three methionine sulphoxide reductases80,
one of which has been shown to be important for
virulence in a mouse bacteraemia infection model81,
indicating that it contributes important functions for
survival in vivo.
Transcriptional microarray analysis of mRNA from
five strains of S. aureus following ingestion by neutro-
phils indicated a large number of differentially regu-
lated genes82. The number of genes affected depended
on the strain, with CA-MRSA strains involving a
greater number than nosocomial MRSA strains. The
former were significantly more virulent in a mouse
infection model and were more resistant to killing by
neutrophils, indicating that their enhanced survival
involves a greater number of factors and is more
complex that the latter. Many known or suspected
stress-response genes were upregulated immediately
after ingestion, including superoxide-dismutases,
catalase and carotenoid-pigment-biosynthesis genes.
The leuko toxin Hlg was strongly upregulated in all
strains, indicating an important role in destroy-
ing neutrophils. Unfortunately, this study did not
address the role of the PVL, about which there are
contradictory reports of its association with virulent
A similar array study has been carried out with
Streptococcus pyogenes83. A smaller number of genes
were differentially regulated when compared to
MRSA strains, which could indicate that for S. pyo-
genes there is more emphasis on inhibition of phago-
cytosis, whereas S. aureus is more readily ingested83.
However, there are likely to be common mechanisms
for survival involving resistance to oxidants and other
– REF. 78. Mutants defective
S. aureus was previously regarded as an exclusively
extracellular pathogen, but it is now evident that it
has the ability to survive in neutrophils and macro-
phages, as well being able to infect non-professional
phagocytes such as endothelial and epithelial cells,
promoted by the fibronectin-binding proteins form-
ing a fibronectin bridge to the α5β1 integrin on the
Avoidance of phagocytosis by S. epidermidis
During the past twenty years, S. epidermidis has
emerged as a leading cause of nosocomial infections84.
It is normally a harmless commensal of the human
skin, lacking the multiple virulence factors that allow
S. aureus to invade the host and thwart the immune sys-
tem85. It has come to prominence as a pathogen owing
to its ability to colonize implanted medical devices and
form biofilms84. The multilayered, high-density struc-
tured biofilm protects bacteria from antibiotics and the
human immune system86. Formation of a biofilm is ini-
tiated when bacteria adhere to a biomaterial surface, a
process that is mediated by surface-associated proteins
such as the major autolysin AtlE87 and the fibrinogen-
binding protein Fbe88,89. Most cells in the biofilm are
not in contact with the surface but are held together by
PIA, a charged homopolymer comprising β-1,6-linked
N-acetylglucosamine. As well as providing the glue that
holds the multi layered cell complex together, PIA has
recently been shown to contribute directly to avoidance
of innate immunity by pro moting resistance to anti-
microbial defensin peptides. A PIA-defective mutant
was more susceptible to killing by peptides LL-37,
β-defensin 3 and dermicidin90 and had increased
susceptibility to neutrophil uptake and killing.
Some clinical isolates from device-associated
infections form biofilm in vitro but do not express
PIA91. Biofilm formation requires expression of the
surface-located accumulation-associated protein
Aap. The intact full-length protein must be cleaved
by a protease to remove the N-terminal A domain,
exposing the more distal repeated region, which
then promotes cell–cell interactions. Interestingly,
S. epidermidis elastase not only activates Aap, but also
the neutrophil proteases cathepsin and neutrophil
elastase. Therefore, components of host defence cells
might actually contribute to biofilm formation and
pathogenesis of some S. epidermidis strains.
The ability to form biofilm is also likely to be
important in the pathogenesis of certain S. aureus
infections. S. aureus encodes genes that are similar to
the ica genes of S. epidermidis, and some strains have
been shown to express PIA, particularly when growing
under anaerobic conditions92,93 and in vivo94. However,
the role of PIA in avoidance of innate immunity by
S. aureus has not been investigated, although the
importance of PIA in S. epidermidis infection indicates
that this is likely.
S. epidermidis also expresses a poly-γ-dl-glutamic
acid (PGA) in the form of a surface-located macro-
molecule95. A PGA capsule is required for virulence
of Bacillus anthracis96. A PGA-defective mutant grew
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© 2005 Nature Publishing Group
MHC class II
Altered T cell
poorly in NaCl compared to the parental strain,
indicating that S. epidermidis expresses PGA to aid
survival in the high-osmolarity environment of
the surface of skin. The expression of PGA did not
affect the ability of S. epidermidis to form biofilm
in vitro, but did contribute significantly to resistance
to killing by anti microbial peptides and resistance to
opsonophago cytosis by human neutrophils.
Modulins. Despite being less virulent than S. aureus,
S. epidermidis can causes abscesses and sepsis. This
microorganism expresses a family of small amphi-
pathic peptides with proinflammatory properties
called modulins97. They are strong chemoattract-
ants for human neutro phils and stimulate their
activation98. They are more potent than the classic
pathogen-associated pattern molecules such as
lipoteichoic acid. The modulins of S. epidermidis are
only expressed when the cell density is high, under
the control of the accessory gene regulator (Agr)
quorum-sensing system99. Expression of modulins
could be to the organism’s advantage when the
cell density is high and the bacteria are resistant to
phagocytosis in a biofilm by stimulating local cell
damage to provide nutrients.
Protein A. As well as being anti-opsonic, protein A is
also a potent immunomodulatory molecule because of
its ability to bind to the VH3 region that is adjacent to the
antigen-binding domain of IgM molecules exposed on
the surface of B lymphocytes (FIG. 4). Those cells bear-
ing VH3 IgM are stimulated to proliferate and undergo
apoptosis, leading to depletion of a significant propor-
tion of the repertoire of potential antibody-secreting
B cells in the spleen and bone marrow100. The structural
basis of the interaction is known, with this remarkable
molecule binding to the VH3 region through helices II
and III, in contrast to the helix-I-binding domain for
the Fc region of IgG101–103.
Enterotoxins and TSST-1. S. aureus secretes toxins that
act both as superantigens when expressed systemically
and cause an emetic response when ingested104. The
superantigen activity is specified by a distinct domain
of the protein from that which determines the emetic
response, although the mechanism of the latter is
obscure. Some strains also express the superantigenic
toxic shock syndrome toxin-1 (TSST-1), which came to
prominence through its association with cases of super-
absorbent tampon-associated toxic shock syndrome
(TSS) in the early 1980s105. Clinical isolates of S. aureus
often express several superantigens. Superantigens have
the ability to bind the exterior surface of the MHC class
II protein on the surface of antigen-presenting cells and
link it to T-cell receptors on the surface of a T helper
cell10,106,107 (FIG. 4). Binding occurs without the require-
ment for the MHC class II molecule to present an anti-
genic peptide to a suitable T-cell receptor. Each type of
enterotoxin recognizes a specific subset of variable Vβ
chains of T-cell receptors and therefore has characteris-
tic Vβ signatures108. Also, there are diverse binding sites
on the MHC class II protein109. Up to 30% of T cells can
become activated, leading to proliferation, with the high
levels of cytokines expressed causing TSS105,106.
Expression of superantigens in the infected host
also prevents development of a normal immune
response106. Antigen-specific T cells fail to proliferate
in response to antigens that are presented normally by
MHC class II due to a phenomenon called anergy110.
The consequence is immunosuppression due to fail-
ure to induce an appropriate antibody response. This
also is likely to prevent development of antibodies
to superantigen toxins themselves. Lack of antibody
to the super antigen is a common characteristic of TSS
Interestingly, S. pyogenes expresses superantigens
that are structurally and functionally related to those
expressed by S. aureus106,111. Indeed, infections by this
organism can result in TSS with similar symptoms to the
S. aureus disease. It is therefore likely that superantigen-
producing S. pyogenes is also immunosuppressive.
The MHC class II-analogue protein Map (also
called Eap, see above) comprises six repeated domains
of 110 residues, each containing a 30-residue motif
with strong homology to the peptide-binding groove
of the MHC class II β-chain112. It can bind to the
T-cell receptor on T cells, resulting in an alteration
Figure 4 | Mechanisms of immunosuppression mediated
by Staphylococcus aureus. This figure illustrates examples
of immunomodulatory molecules used by S. aureus to alter
the host immune response, including the superantigens
(sAgs) enterotoxins and toxic shock syndrome toxin-1 that
bind the MHC class II receptor to T-cell receptors; protein A,
which binds immunoglobulin M (IgM) VH3 on B cells; and the
MHC class II analogue protein Map, which binds the T-cell
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© 2005 Nature Publishing Group
of T-cell function (FIG. 4). Map also causes a reduc-
tion in T-cell proliferation, which results in a reduced
delayed-type hypersensitivity response58. Map causes
a shift from a Th1 response to a Th2 response, which
affects cell-mediated immunity and might explain the
more rapid clearance of a Map-deficient mutant com-
pared to the wild-type strain from internal abscesses in
infected mice. Map also shows two distinct effects on
peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs)113. At low
concentrations, it stimulates proliferation of PBMCs,
whereas at high concentrations the protein inhibits
the proliferative effect of the superantigen TSST-1 and
stimulates apotosis of B and T cells. The receptors rec-
ognized by Map in causing these effects are unknown.
Subversion of the humoral immune response
S. aureus cells can bind to platelets and stimulate their
rapid activation. Platelet activation and subsequent
aggregation is thought to be an important facet of the
pathogenesis of endovascular infections, leading to
endocarditis114,115. The bacteria grow in platelet-fibrin
thrombi, where they escape the attention of neutrophils.
An infected thrombus on a heart valve is potentially
life-threatening, and difficult to treat without surgical
intervention. The fibronectin-binding proteins are the
dominant surface proteins causing platelet activation for
bacterial cells in exponential growth, and ClfA is crucial
for cells from the stationary phase of growth42,116,117. In
both cases, contact with the resting platelet is made
through a bridge to the nascent low-affinity GPIIb/IIIa
integrin provided by fibronectin or fibrinogen. In addi-
tion, for activation to occur, the binding of antibodies
specific for the surface protein is required. Bound IgG
engages the FcγRIIa receptor on the platelet surface. This
causes clustering of receptors and stimulation of intra-
cellular signalling, leading to activation and aggregation.
Almost all individuals have low levels of anti bodies
to surface proteins of S. aureus, including ClfA and
fibronectin-binding proteins, and these are exploited by
the bacterium to promote platelet activation and disease
Prospects for vaccination
An individual who has suffered from a S. aureus infec-
tion is usually not protected from a subsequent infection.
This is because the host is prevented from mounting a
strong antibody response, and immunological memory
is compromised by the immunosuppressive activities
of superantigens. However, there is mounting evidence
that it is possible to generate a robust antibody response
to highly purified surface components of S. aureus such
as capsular polysaccharide54, the collagen-binding
protein Cna and the fibrinogen-binding protein
ClfA45,118. In each case, active immunization has been
shown to protect laboratory animals from infection.
Furthermore, immunization of haemodialysis patients
with staphVAX, comprising type 5 and type 8 capsular
polysaccharide conjugated with Pseudomonas aerugi-
nosa exotoxin A toxoid, was successful in reducing the
incidence of infection in these vulnerable patients over
an 8-month period119. A second clinical trial is underway
to evaluate the benefit of a booster at 8 months.
Passive immunization of mice with immuno globulin
obtained from human donors with high titres of anti-
ClfA antibodies protected against a lethal intravenous
dose of the pathogen45,120. Immunoglobulin with high
titres of antibodies recognizing ClfA of S. aureus
and SdrG of S. epidermidis is currently undergoing a
Phase III trial with low-birth-weight neonates, who are
particularly susceptible to staphylococcal infection.
Protective immunity in experimental infections
was also obtained with a humanized monoclonal anti-
body directed against the surface protein ClfA121,122.
The monoclonal antibody also showed therapeutic
efficacy in combination with vancomycin when
used to treat rabbit endocarditis caused by an MRSA
strain. A humanized version is currently undergoing
a Phase II trial to treat bacteraemia patients.
In this review, I have outlined the multiplicity of
mechanisms employed by S. aureus to thwart innate
and induced immunity. It is particularly instructive to
compare S. aureus with its close relative S. epidermidis,
which essentially relies on surface polymers and its
ability to form biofilm to survive in the host.
The recently emerged CA-MRSA strains seem to
have enhanced virulence compared to nosocomial
MRSA strains. This is a major cause for concern
because of its propensity to cause rapidly fatal necrotiz-
ing pneumonia in healthy individuals. It was originally
suggested that carriage of the phage-specifying PVL
is a signature of CA-MRSA, with responsibility for
enhanced leukotoxicity. However, this cannot always
be the case because of the lack of association between
possession of pvl and leukotoxicity in a diverse collec-
tion of CA-MRSA strains35. The ubiquitous leukotoxin
Hlg is strongly induced in neutrophils and is likely to
be important in lysing neutrophils.
Survival in neutrophils is clearly a complex affair,
with a large number of genes being differentially regu-
lated. Unravelling the regulatory circuits involved and
discovering the mechanisms of enhanced survival in
CA-MRSA is a challenge for the future.
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A novel mechanism for resisting oxidants in
neutrophils. Mutants defective in pigment are more
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I would like to thank the Science Foundation Ireland, the Health
Research Board, the Wellcome Trust, the European Commission
Framework 5 and Inhibitex Inc. for funding.
Competing interests statement
The author declares no competing financial interests.
The following terms in this article are linked online to:
Bacillus anthracis | Pseudomonas aeruginosa |
Staphylococcus aureus | Staphylococcus epidermis |
Aap | aureolysin | AtlE | C5aR | CHIPS | ClfA | ClfB | Can | Efb |
exotoxin A | Fbe | FPR | ICAM-1 | lactoferrin | LFA-1| lysozyme |
MrpF | protein A | PVL | SarA | SdrG | staphylokinase | TSST-1
Timothy J. Foster’s homepage:
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958 | DECEMBER 2005 | VOLUME 3