In this month’s issue of the journal PLoS ONE, a team of researchers at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, investigates disease-causing E. coli strains known as APEC (for Avian Pathogenic E. coli). By studying circular segments of bacterial DNA known as plasmids, the group uncovered some of the tricks used by these highly adaptive organisms to survive, even in the face of daunting environmental challenges.  

According to Melha Mellata, assistant research professor and lead author of the current study, the research is an important step toward a more thorough understanding of the genetic underpinnings of pathogenic E. coli: “E. coli bacteria that are able to persist and cause diseases have developed multiple strategies to achieve this,” she says. “It is important to elucidate the genetic mechanisms used by these bacteria so that we can turn their own weapons against them.”

Birds, including chickens can become infected with APEC, causing colibacillosis – an acute and often fatal disease, resulting in significant economic loss for the poultry industry. Further, because APEC bacteria bear a genetic blueprint similar to that of other members of the group of Extra-intestinal pathogenic E. coli or ExPEC, to which they belong, the danger exists for such avian bacterial strains to cross the genetic barrier to infect humans, causing so-called zoonotic diseases. 

Retail chicken products are also believed to act as reservoirs for existing E. coli strains responsible for human ExPEC infections. As their name implies, these extra-intestinal bacterial pathogens cause infections outside their customary habitat in the gut. They are responsible for illnesses including septicemia, newborn meningitis and urinary tract infections. ExPEC infections result in significant loss of life and cost the U.S. health care industry billions of dollars. 

While the genetic kinship of human and avian pathogenic E. coli strains is cause for concern, it may also provide an opportunity for the development of a vaccine capable of cross-protecting humans and birds, if a group of genes common to all extra-intestinal E. coli can be identified and targeted. Roy Curtiss, director of Biodesign’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, oversees a project aimed at achieving this goal. 

In the current study, the team – including undergraduate researchers, Jacob Maddux and Timothy Nam – investigated the genetic sequence of several large plasmids in a strain of APEC commonly used for research purposes. The presence of multiple large plasmids is characteristic of ExPEC bacteria, particularly APEC. Previously, the first of three large plasmids had been sequenced and analyzed by the group and found to code for virulence factors, which help the bacterium infect its host. The two other large plasmids were sequenced for the first time in the present study, as well as a smaller APEC plasmid, whose significance remains obscure. 

Unlike the first of the three large plasmids examined, the second and third do not encode for common virulence factors and appear to play only a minor role in the actual infection process of APEC bacteria. The team hypothesized that these plasmids instead conferred heightened survival potential during stressful environmental situations, including bacterial subsistence soils, poultry litter or under acidic conditions.  

In order to test the hypothesis, the group began by fully sequencing these two large plasmids as well as a smaller plasmid. They next examined the contribution of all four plasmids, both individually and in combination, as the APEC bacteria colonized human intestinal epithelial cells. The APEC strains, with their complement of plasmids, were studied under varying environmental conditions to assess their resistance to acid and bile in the human GI tract; growth under iron-poor conditions and varying carbon sources; and ability to clump together to form biofilms—a critical component of the infection process.