Clostridium difficile--a spectrum of virulence and analysis of putative virulence determinants in the hamster model of antibiotic-associated colitis

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  • S P Borriello
  • J M Ketley
  • F E Barclay
  • A R Welch
  • A B Price

Colleges, School and Institutes


Each of nine different toxigenic strains of Clostridium difficile was administered orally to groups of hamsters pre-treated with clindamycin and housed individually in sterile isolator boxes. Faecal pellets and caecal contents from well, diarrhoeic, moribund and freshly dead animals were analysed for C. difficile and toxins A (enterotoxin) and B (cytotoxin), and tissue obtained when animals were killed was examined histologically. Not all strains were equally virulent in this model. Four strains of C. difficile killed all animals within 48 h and are designated as highly virulent for hamsters. These strains were clinical isolates from three cases of disease in man and one case in a hamster. Five strains caused death of some animals but only after 5 and upt to 13 days and are designated as less virulent for hamsters. These strains were isolated from asymptomatic infants (2) and household pets (2), and from the environment (1). The surviving test hamsters were killed after 14 days and, in most cases, were colonised by C. difficile, though levels of toxins A and B in caecal contents were low. None of the cultures used for challenge was capsulate or hydrophobic. There was no correlation between virulence and production of toxins A and B in vitro in tryptic-nitrate broth. With two strains examined, there was a correlation between virulence and toxin A (but not toxin B) production in caecal emulsions derived from clindamycin pre-treated hamsters. Caecal contents from the majority of moribund and freshly dead animals had quantities of toxin A sufficient to cause disease or death if given orogastrically. Toxin B was not produced in a fixed ratio with toxin A. The data support the view that high virulence of C. difficile is determined by efficient disease-inducing colonisation of the gut and the ability to generate, rapidly, high levels of toxin A in vivo.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-64
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Medical Microbiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Aug 1987


  • Animals, Bacterial Proteins, Bacterial Toxins, Cecum, Clindamycin, Clostridium, Cricetinae, Disease Models, Animal, Enterocolitis, Pseudomembranous, Enterotoxins, Feces, Humans, Intestinal Mucosa, Intestine, Small, Mesocricetus, Virulence