Salmonella heterogeneously expresses flagellin during colonization of plants
Minimally processed or fresh fruits and vegetables are unfortunately linked to an increasing number of food-borne diseases, such as salmonellosis. One of the relevant virulence factors during the initial phases of the infection process is the bacterial flagellum. Although its function is well studied in animal systems, contradictory results have been published regarding its role during plant colonization. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that Salmonella’s flagellin plays a versatile function during the colonization of tomato plants. We have assessed the persistence in plant tissues of a Salmonella enterica wild type strain, and of a strain lacking the two flagellins, FljB and FliC. We detected no differences between these strains concerning their respective abilities to reach distal, non-inoculated parts of the plant. Analysis of flagellin expression inside the plant, at both the population and single cell levels, shows that the majority of bacteria down-regulate flagellin production, however, a small fraction of the population continues to express flagellin at a very high level inside the plant. This heterogeneous expression of flagellin might be an adaptive strategy to the plant environment. In summary, our study provides new insights on Salmonella adaption to the plant environment through the regulation of flagellin expression.