Clostridium perfringens vegetative cells cause both histotoxic infections (e.g., gas gangrene) and diseases originating in the intestines (e.g., hemorrhagic necrotizing enteritis or lethal enterotoxemia). Despite their medical and veterinary importance, the molecular pathogenicity of C. perfringens vegetative cells causing diseases of intestinal origin remains poorly understood. However, C. perfringens beta toxin (CPB) was recently shown to be important when vegetative cells of C. perfringens type C strain CN3685 induce hemorrhagic necrotizing enteritis and lethal enterotoxemia. Additionally, the VirS/VirR twocomponent regulatory system was found to control CPB production by CN3685 vegetative cells during aerobic infection of cultured enterocyte-like Caco-2 cells. Using an isogenic virR null mutant, the current study now reports that the VirS/VirR system also regulates CN3685 cytotoxicity during infection of Caco-2 cells under anaerobic conditions, as found in the intestines. More importantly, the virR mutant lost the ability to cause hemorrhagic necrotic enteritis in rabbit small intestinal loops. Western blot analyses demonstrated that the VirS/VirR system mediates necrotizing enteritis, at least in part, by controlling in vivo CPB production. In addition, vegetative cells of the isogenic virR null mutant were, relative to wild-type vegetative cells, strongly attenuated in their lethality in a mouse enterotoxemia model. Collectively, these results identify the first regulator of in vivo pathogenicity for C. perfringens vegetative cells causing disease originating in the complex intestinal environment. Since VirS/VirR also mediates histotoxic infections, this two-component regulatory system now assumes a global role in regulating a spectrum of infections caused by C. perfringens vegetative cells.
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