The plasmid-encoded transcription factor ArdK contributes to the repression of the IMP-6 metallo-ß-lactamase gene blaIMP-6, leading to a carbapenem-susceptible phenotype in the blaIMP-6-positive Escherichia coli strain A56-1S.
Carbapenemase-producing Enterobacteriaceae (CPE) are a global concern because these bacteria are resistant to almost all ß-lactams. Horizontal interspecies gene transfer via plasmid conjugation has increased the global dissemination of CPE. Recently, an Enterobacteriaceae strain positive for carbapenemase gene but showing a carbapenem-susceptible phenotype was identified, suggesting that these susceptible strains may be challenging to detect solely via antimicrobial susceptibility tests without molecular analysis. Here, we isolated a blaIMP-6 carbapenemase-gene positive but imipenem- and meropenem-susceptible Escherichia coli (ISMS-E) strain A56-1S (imipenem and meropenem minimum inhibitory concentration, = 0.125 mg/L), from a human urine specimen in Japan. A56-1S was carbapenemase negative by the Carba NP test, suggesting that IMP-6 production was low or undetectable. Thus, to characterize the mechanism of this phenotype, a meropenem-resistant E. coli A56-1R strain was obtained using meropenem-selection. A56-1R was positive for carbapenemase production by the Carba NP test, and blaIMP-6 transcription in A56-1R was 53-fold higher than in A56-1S, indicating that blaIMP-6 in A56-1S is negatively regulated at the transcriptional level. Comparative genomic analysis between the two strains revealed that the alleviation of restriction of DNA (ardK) gene encoding a putative transcription factor is disrupted by the IS26 insertion in A56-1R. A cotransformation assay of ardK and the regulatory element upstream of blaIMP-6 showed repression of blaIMP-6 transcription, indicating that ArdK negatively modulates blaIMP-6 transcription. ArdK binding and affinity assays demonstrated that ArdK directly binds to the regulatory element upstream of blaIMP-6 with dissociation constant values comparable to those of general transcription factors. The IMP-6 carbapenemase showed low hydrolytic activity against imipenem, resulting in an imipenem-susceptible and meropenem-resistant (ISMR) phenotype (previously reported as a stealth phenotype). However, the low expression of IMP-6 in the A56-1S strain could be a typical characteristic of ISMS-E due to gene repression, indicating that conventional antimicrobial susceptibility tests might be unable to detect such strains even when using both imipenem and meropenem. Bacteria that exhibit the ISMS phenotype could play a potential role as undetectable reservoirs and might facilitate gene transfer to other organisms while avoiding detection.