Spread of Pathogenicity Islands in Escherichia coli
The species Escherichia coli comprises non-pathogenic, commensal bacterial strains belonging to the normal gut microbiota of humans and many animals, but also pathogenic strains, which cause different types of intestinal or extraintestinal infections in man and animals. Single factors and mechanisms involved in pathogenesis of extraintestinal pathogenic E. coli (ExPEC) have been analyzed in detail for many years. Horizontal gene transfer is a key step in the evolution of bacterial pathogens. Besides phages and plasmids, pathogenicity islands (PAIs) are subjected to horizontal transfer. The transfer mechanisms of PAIs within a certain bacterial species or between different species are still not well understood.
In a new study the authors applied a phylogenetic approach using multilocus sequence typing on HPI-positive and -negative natural E. coli isolates representative of the species diversity to infer the mechanism of horizontal HPI transfer within the E. coli species. In each strain, the partial nucleotide sequences of 6 HPI–encoded genes and 6 housekeeping genes of the genomic backbone, as well as DNA fragments immediately upstream and downstream of the HPI were compared. This revealed that the HPI is not solely vertically transmitted, but that recombination of large DNA fragments beyond the HPI plays a major role in the spread of the HPI within E. coli species. In support of the results of the phylogenetic analyses, they demonstrated that HPI can be transferred between different E. coli strains by F-plasmid mediated mobilization. Sequencing of the chromosomal DNA regions immediately upstream and downstream of the HPI in the recipient strain indicated that the HPI was transferred and integrated together with HPI–flanking DNA regions of the donor strain. The results of this study demonstrate for the first time that conjugative transfer and homologous DNA recombination play a major role in horizontal transfer of a pathogenicity island within the species E. coli.