Listeria monocytogenes is a Gram-positive bacterium responsible for severe infections in human and a large variety of animal species. It is a facultative, intracellular pathogen which invades macrophages and most tissue cells of infected hosts where it can proliferate.
The molecular basis of this intracellular parasitism has been to a large extent elucidated. The virulence factors, including internalin, listeriolysin O, phospholipases and a bacterial surface protein, ActA, are encoded by chromosomal genes organized in operons. Following internalisation into host cells, the bacteria escape from the phagosomal compartment and enter the cytoplasm. They then spread from cell to cell by a process involving actin polymerisation.
In infected hosts, the bacteria cross the intestinal wall at Peyer's patches to invade the mesenteric lymph nodes and the blood. The main target organ is the liver, where the bacteria multiply inside hepatocytes. Early recruitment of polymorphonuclear cells lead to hepatocyte lysis, and thereby bacterial release. This causes prolonged septicaemia, particularly in immunocompromised hosts, thus exposing the placenta and brain to infection. The prognosis of listeriosis depends on the severity of meningoencephalitis, due to the elective location of foci of infection in the brain stem (rhombencephalitis). Despite bactericidal antibiotic therapy, the overall mortality is still high (25 to 30%).