Millepora alcicornis is a branching hydrocoral common throughout the Caribbean Sea. Like other members of this genus, this species is capable of inducing skin eruptions and blisters with severe pain after contact. In the present study, we investigated the toxicity of the M. alcicornis aqueous extract on several animal models. Considering that some cnidarian hemolysins have been associated to local tissue damage, since they also induce lysis of other cell types, we also made a partial characterization of the hemolytic activity of M. alcicornis aqueous extract. This information is important for understanding the defense mechanisms of the "fire corals".
The effects of pH, temperature, and some divalent cations on the hemolytic activity of the extract were assayed, followed by a zymogram analysis to detect the cytolysins and determine their approximate molecular weight. The toxicity of the aqueous extract was assayed in mice, by intravenous administration, and histopathological changes on several tissues were analyzed by light microscopy. The toxicity of the extract was also tested in Artemia salina nauplii, and the damages caused on the crustaceans were analyzed by transmission and scanning electron microscopy.
The hemolytic activity of the hydrocoral extract was enhanced in the presence of Ca(2+) (≥2 mM), Mg(2+) (≥6 mM), and Ba(2+) (≥0.1 mM); however, it was reduced in the presence of Cu(2+) (≥0.1 mM), Zn(2+) (≥6 mM), and EDTA (≥0.34 mM). Differences in the pH did not affect the hemolytic activity, but it was temperature-sensitive, since preincubation at ≥ 50 °C sharply reduced hemolysis. The zymogram showed the presence of two types of hemolysins: ~ 28-30 kDa proteins with phospholipase A2 activity and ~ 200 kDa proteins that do not elicit enzymatic activity. The aqueous extract of this cnidarian was lethal to mice (LD50 = 17 μg protein/g), and induced kidney, liver, and lung damages. Under denaturing conditions, the aqueous extract completely lost its toxic and hemolytic activities.
The results showed that the M. alcicornis aqueous extract contains two types of thermolabile hemolysins: proteins of approximately 28-30 kDa with PLA2 activity, while the others are larger proteins of approximately 200 kDa, which do not possess PLA2 activity. Those thermolabile cytolysins, which are stable to pH changes and whose activity is calcium dependent, are capable of inducing damage in lung, kidney and liver tissues, resulting in a slow death of mice. M. alcicornis cytolysins also provoke tissue dissociation in Artemia salina nauplii that might be attributed to pore forming mechanisms.