Avian pathogenic Escherichia coli (APEC) strains are a subset of extraintestinal pathogenic E. coli (ExPEC) strains associated with respiratory infections and septicemia in poultry. The iroBCDEN genes encode the salmochelin siderophore system present in Salmonella enterica and some ExPEC strains. Roles of the iro genes for virulence in chickens and production of salmochelins were assessed by introducing plasmids carrying different combinations of iro genes into an attenuated salmochelin- and aerobactin-negative mutant of O78 strain chi7122. Complementation with the iroBCDEN genes resulted in a regaining of virulence, whereas the absence of iroC, iroDE, or iroN abrogated restoration of virulence. The iroE gene was not required for virulence, since introduction of iroBCDN restored the capacity to cause lesions and colonize extraintestinal tissues. Prevalence studies indicated that iro sequences were associated with virulent APEC strains. Liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis of supernatants of APEC chi7122 and the complemented mutants indicated that (i) for chi7122, salmochelins comprised 14 to 27% of the siderophores present in iron-limited medium or infected tissues; (ii) complementation of the mutant with the iro locus increased levels of glucosylated dimers (S1 and S5) and monomer (SX) compared to APEC strain chi7122; (iii) the iroDE genes were important for generation of S1, S5, and SX; (iv) iroC was required for export of salmochelin trimers and dimers; and (v) iroB was required for generation of salmochelins. Overall, efficient glucosylation (IroB), transport (IroC and IroN), and processing (IroD and IroE) of salmochelins are required for APEC virulence, although IroE appears to serve an ancillary role.
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