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The cytopathic activity of cholera toxin requires a threshold quantity of cytosolic toxin

Bader, C;Taylor, M;Banerjee, T;Teter, K;

After binding to the surface of a target cell, cholera toxin (CT) moves to the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) by retrograde transport. In the ER, the catalytic CTA1 subunit dissociates from the rest of the toxin and is transferred to the cytosol where it is degraded by a ubiquitin-independent proteasomal mechanism. However, CTA1 persists long enough to induce excessive cAMP production through the activation of Gs?. It is generally believed that only one or a few molecules of cytosolic CTA1 are necessary to elicit a cytopathic effect, yet no study has directly correlated the levels of cytosolic toxin to the extent of intoxication. Here, we used the technology of surface plasmon resonance to quantify the cytosolic pool of CTA1. Our data demonstrate that only 4% of surface-bound CTA1 is found in the cytosol after 2 h of intoxication. This represented around 2600 molecules of cytosolic toxin per cell, and it was sufficient to produce a robust cAMP response. However, we did not detect elevated cAMP levels in cells containing less than 700 molecules of cytosolic toxin. Thus, a threshold quantity of cytosolic CTA1 is required to elicit a cytopathic effect. When translocation to the cytosol was blocked soon after toxin exposure, the pool of CTA1 already in the cytosol was degraded and was not replenished. The cytosolic pool of CTA1 thus remained below its functional threshold, preventing the initiation of a cAMP response. These observations challenge the paradigm that extremely low levels of cytosolic toxin are sufficient for toxicity, and they provide experimental support for the development of post-intoxication therapeutic strategies.