Isolates of Pseudomonas aeruginosa from cystic fibrosis patients are unusual; they are often susceptible to the bactericidal effect of human serum, have a rough lipopolysaccharide, and produce an exopolysaccharide that is responsible for the characteristic mucoid phenotype. In contrast, strains from the environment and from patients with other diseases usually have smooth lipopolysaccharide, do not produce very much mucoid exopolysaccharide, and are phenotypically nonmucoid. The predominance of mucoid strains of P. aeruginosa in infections of patients with cystic fibrosis has not been explained. In the lower airways, where P. aeruginosa persists in cystic fibrosis, nutrients for bacterial growth may be limited. We investigated whether growth of P. aeruginosa under conditions of suboptimal nutrition causes conversion to the characteristic cystic fibrosis phenotype. Ninety-two strains of P. aeruginosa were maintained for up to 90 days in a minimal medium with acetamide as the sole carbon source. In 56 (52%) of 107 cultures, isolates with rough lipopolysaccharide emerged, and in 20 (19%) of 104 nonmucoid cultures, mucoid isolates were recovered. Strains with rough lipopolysaccharide also were sensitive to the bactericidal effect of normal human serum. Under conditions of suboptimal nutrition in vitro, isolates of P. aeruginosa emerged that produced rough lipopolysaccharide and were mucoid, typical of many isolates from cystic fibrosis patients. This peculiar phenotype may arise as a consequence of nutritional limitation within the cystic fibrosis respiratory tract rather than from features unique to these strains of bacteria.
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