Lysogenic conversion of atypical enteropathogenic Escherichia coli (aEPEC) from human, murine, and bovine origin with bacteriophage Φ3538 Δstx2::cat proves their enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) progeny
Bacteriophages play an important role in the evolution of bacterial pathogens. A phage-mediated transfer of stx-genes to atypical enteropathogenic E. coli (aEPEC) which are prevalent in different hosts, would convert them to enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC). We decided to confirm this hypothesis experimentally to provide conclusive evidence that aEPEC isolated from different mammalian hosts are indeed progenitors of typical EHEC which gain the ability to produce Shiga-Toxin by lysogeny with stx-converting bacteriophages, utilizing the model phage Φ3538 Δstx2::cat. We applied a modified in vitro plaque-assay, using a high titer of a bacteriophage carrying a deletion in the stx2 gene (Φ3538 Δstx2::cat) to increase the detection of lysogenic conversion events. Three wild-type aEPEC strains were chosen as acceptor strains: the murine aEPEC-strain IMT14505 (sequence type (ST)28, serotype Ont:H6), isolated from a striped field mouse (Apodemus agrarius) in the surrounding of a cattle shed, and the human aEPEC-strain 910#00 (ST28, Ont:H6). The close genomic relationship of both strains implies a high zoonotic potential. A third strain, the bovine aEPEC IMT19981, was of serotype O26:H11 and ST21 (STC29). All three aEPEC were successfully lysogenized with phage Φ3538 Δstx2::cat. Integration of the bacteriophage DNA into the aEPEC host genomes was confirmed by amplification of chloramphenicol transferase (cat) marker gene and by Southern-Blot hybridization. Analysis of the whole genome sequence of each of the three lysogens showed that the bacteriophage was integrated into the known tRNA integration site argW, which is highly variable among E. coli. In conclusion, the successful lysogenic conversion of aEPEC with a stx-phage in vitro underlines the important role of aEPEC as progenitors of EHEC. Given the high prevalence and the wide host range of aEPEC acceptors, their high risk of zoonotic transmission should be recognized in infection control measures.
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