Most Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) strains associated with severe disease, such as hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), carry large enterohemolysin-encoding (ehxA) plasmids, e.g., pO157 and pO103, that contribute to STEC clinical manifestations. Six ehxA subtypes (A through F) exist that phylogenetically cluster into eae-positive (B, C, F), a mix of eae-positive (E) and eae-negative (A), and a third, more distantly related, cluster of eae-negative (D) STEC strains. While subtype B, C, and F plasmids share a number of virulence traits that are distinct from those of subtype A, sequence data have not been available for subtype D and E plasmids. Here, we determined and compared the genetic composition of four subtype D and two subtype E plasmids to establish their evolutionary relatedness among ehxA subtypes and define their potential role in pathogenicity. We found that subtype D strains carry one exceptionally large plasmid (>200 kbp) that carries a variety of virulence genes that are associated with enterotoxigenic and enterohemorrhagic E. coli, which, quite possibly, enables these strains to cause disease despite being food isolates. Our data offer further support for the hypothesis that this subtype D plasmid represents a novel virulence plasmid, sharing very few genetic features with other plasmids; we conclude that these plasmids have evolved from a different evolutionary lineage than the plasmids carrying the other ehxA subtypes. In contrast, the 50-kbp plasmids of subtype E (pO145), although isolated from HUS outbreak strains, carried only few virulence-associated determinants, suggesting that the clinical presentation of subtype E strains is largely a result of chromosomally encoded virulence factors.Bacterial plasmids are known to be key agents of change in microbial populations, promoting the dissemination of various traits, such as drug resistance and virulence. This study determined the genetic makeup of virulence plasmids from rare enterohemolysin subtype D and E Shiga toxin-producing E. coli strains. We demonstrated that ehxA subtype D plasmids represent a novel E. coli virulence plasmid, and although subtype D plasmids were derived from nonclinical isolates, they encoded a variety of virulence determinants that are associated with pathogenic E. coli In contrast, subtype E plasmids, isolated from strains recovered from severely ill patients, carry only a few virulence determinants. The results of this study reemphasize the plasticity and vast diversity among E. coli plasmids. This work demonstrates that, although E. coli strains of certain serogroups may not be frequently associated with disease, they should not be underestimated in protecting human health and food safety. Copyright © 2016, American Society for Microbiology. All Rights Reserved.
Journal: Applied and environmental microbiology