Colicin Killing: Foiled Cell Defense and Hijacked Cell Functions

  • Miklos de Zamaroczy
  • Mathieu Chauleau


The study of bacteriocins, notably those produced by E. coli (and named colicins), was initiated in 1925 by Gratia, who first discovered “un remarquable exemple d’antagonisme entre deux souches de colibacilles”. Since this innovating observation, the production of toxic exoproteins has been widely reported in all major lineages of Eubacteria and in Archaebacteria. Bacteriocins belong to the most abundant and most diverse group of these bacterial defense systems. Paradoxically, these antimicrobial cytotoxins are actually powerful weapons in the intense battle for bacterial survival. They are also biotechnologically useful since several bacteriocins are used as preservatives in the food industry or as antibiotics or as potential antitumor agents in human health care. Most colicins kill bacteria in one of two ways. The first type is those that form pores in the phospholipid bilayer of the inner membrane. They are active immediately after their translocation across the outer membrane. The translocation pathway requires generally either the BtuB receptor and the Tol (OmpF/TolABQR) complex, or the FepA, FhuA, or Cir receptor and the Ton (TonB/ExbBD) system. The second type of colicins encodes specific endonuclease activities that target DNA, rRNA, or tRNAs in the cytoplasm. To be active, these colicins require translocation across both the outer and inner membranes. The molecular mechanisms implicated in the complex cascade of interactions, required for the transfers of colicin molecules from the extracellular medium through the different “cellular compartments” (outer membrane, periplasm, inner membrane, and cytoplasm), are still incompletely understood. It is clear, however, that the colicins “hijack” specific cellular functions to facilitate access to their target. In this chapter, following a general presentation of colicin biology, we describe, compare, and update several of the concepts related to colicin toxicity and discuss recent, often unexpected findings, which help to advance our understanding of the molecular events governing colicin import. In particular, our review includes the following: (1) Structural data on the tripartite interaction of a colicin with the outer membrane receptor and the translocation machinery, (2) Comparison of the normal cellular functions of the Tol and Ton systems of the inner membrane with their “hijacked” roles during colicin import, (3) An analysis of the interaction of a nuclease-type colicin with its cognate immunity protein in the context of the immunity of producer cells, and of the dissociation of this complex in the context of the attack of the colicin on target cells, (4) Information on the endoproteolytic cleavage, which presumably accompanies the penetration of nuclease-type colicins into the cytoplasm. The new data presented here provides further insight into cellular functions “hijacked” or “borrowed” by colicins to permit their entry into target cells.


Outer Membrane Nuclease Domain Outer Membrane Receptor Endoproteolytic Cleavage DNase Domain 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We gratefully thank J. Plumbridge for many helpful comments and in-depth discussions on the manuscript. We also thank J.-C. Lazzaroni and L. Mora for critical reading of the review. This work was supported by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (UPR 9073).


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique, CNRS, UPR 9073ParisFrance

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