Lability of the pAA Virulence Plasmid in Escherichia coli O104:H4: Implications for Virulence in Humans

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Abstract

Background:Escherichia coli O104:H4 that caused the large German outbreak in 2011 is a highly virulent hybrid of enterohemorrhagic (EHEC) and enteroaggregative (EAEC) E. coli. The strain displays "stacked-brick" aggregative adherence to human intestinal epithelial cells mediated by aggregative adherence fimbriae I (AAF/I) encoded on the pAA plasmid. The AAF/I-mediated augmented intestinal adherence might facilitate systemic absorption of Shiga toxin, the major virulence factor of EHEC, presumably enhancing virulence of the outbreak strain. However, the stability of pAA in the outbreak strain is unknown. We therefore tested outbreak isolates for pAA, monitored pAA loss during infection, and determined the impact of pAA loss on adherence and clinical outcome of infection.Methodology/Principal Findings:E. coli O104:H4 outbreak isolates from 170 patients (128 with hemolytic uremic syndrome [HUS] and 42 with diarrhea without HUS) were tested for pAA using polymerase chain reaction and plasmid profiling. pAA-harboring bacteria in stool samples were quantified using colony blot hybridization, and adherence to HCT-8 cells was determined. Isolates from 12 (7.1%) patients lacked pAA. Analyses of sequential stool samples demonstrated that the percentages of pAA-positive populations in the initial stools were significantly higher than those in the follow-up stools collected two to eight days later in disease (P≤0.01). This indicates a rapid loss of pAA during infections of humans. The pAA loss was associated with loss of the aggregative adherence phenotype and significantly reduced correlation with HUS (P = 0.001).Conclusions/Significance:The pAA plasmid can be lost by E. coli O104:H4 outbreak strain in the human gut in the course of disease. pAA loss might attenuate virulence and diminish the ability to cause HUS. The pAA instability has clinical, diagnostic, epidemiologic, and evolutionary implications. © 2013 Zhang et al.

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Zhang, W., Bielaszewska, M., Kunsmann, L., Mellmann, A., Bauwens, A., Köck, R., … Karch, H. (2013). Lability of the pAA Virulence Plasmid in Escherichia coli O104:H4: Implications for Virulence in Humans. PLoS ONE, 8(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0066717

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