Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2016

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Patrick Schlievert


Staphylococcus aureus is a gram positive bacterium asymptomatically colonizing 30-40% of the human population. S. aureus causes a variety of infections including superficial skin lesions, toxic shock syndrome, and infective endocarditis (IE). There are 100,000 cases of IE each year in the United States. IE is a life threatening infection of native/prosthetic valves and the lining of the heart. It is characterized by the formation of vegetations, “cauliflower-like” structures composed of bacteria and host factors. S. aureus is the most commonly identified pathogen (up to 40%) in patients with IE. USA200 (Clonal Complex 30) strains of S. aureus are significantly associated with IE, all of which produce toxic shock syndrome toxin-1 (TSST-1) and β-toxin.

TSST-1 characterizes the staphylococcal Group I superantigens (SAgs). The major mechanism of activity of TSST-1 and other SAgs is the ability to activate T-cells and APCs by non-specifically cross-bridging Vβ-chains of T-cell receptors (TCRs) with α and/or β-chains of major histocompatibility complex II (MHCII) molecules on antigen presenting cells (APCs). In a rabbit model of IE and sepsis, TSST-1 is critical for the development of vegetations and the associated colony forming units (CFUs). β-toxin has a molecular mass of 35 kDa, a basic pI (>10.0), and is a member of the DNase I superfamily. This cytotoxin has two distinct mechanisms of action: sphingomyelinase (SMase) activity and DNA biofilm ligase activity. β-toxin is critical for causing IE in a rabbit model that strongly resembles human disease. This toxin association had been observed, but studies have not been completed to determine what role TSST-1 and β-toxin play independently and in cooperation with one another, and more specifically which mechanism each uses, during IE infections.

While TSST-1 and β-toxin are both important for IE, they are very different toxins. My studies determined that the presence of TSST-1 and β-toxin in combination results in the highest levels of lethality in a rabbit model of IE. A strain expressing TSST-1 lacking superantigenic activity has decreased lethality compared to the same strain expressing wild type TSST-1. My study is the first to begin characterization of the DNA biofilm ligase active site by identifying important residues via a DNA binding and biofilm formation assays. Furthermore, my research shows that a β-toxin mutant lacking SMase activity is decreased in lethality and vegetation formation compared to wild type. β-toxin mutants disrupted in biofilm ligase activity do not decrease lethality but are deficient in vegetation formation compared to wild type. Utilizing in vitro assays to assess cellular events during IE, I established that β-toxin causes changes to morphology and is cytotoxic to human aortic endothelial cells (HAECs), inhibits production of IL-8, and modulates the expression levels of cluster of differentiation 40 (CD40) and vascular cell adhesion molecule 1 (VCAM-1).

My work shows these two virulence factors (TSST-1 and β-toxin) produced by USA200 strains and other clonal groups play important roles in causing IE.


Beta-toxin, Infective Endocarditis, Staphylococcus aureus, Toxin Shock Syndrome Toxin 1


ix, 134 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 126-134).


Copyright © 2016 Alfa Herrera

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Microbiology Commons