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Proc Biol Sci. 2007 Aug 22;274(1621):1921-9.

Grazing protozoa and the evolution of the Escherichia coli O157:H7 Shiga toxin-encoding prophage.

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  • 1Graduate Program in Population Biology, Ecology and Evolution, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. kmeltz@emory.edu


Humans play little role in the epidemiology of Escherichia coli O157:H7, a commensal bacterium of cattle. Why then does E. coli O157:H7 code for virulence determinants, like the Shiga toxins (Stxs), responsible for the morbidity and mortality of colonized humans? One possibility is that the virulence of these bacteria to humans is coincidental and these virulence factors evolved for and are maintained for other roles they play in the ecology of these bacteria. Here, we test the hypothesis that the carriage of the Stx-encoding prophage of E. coli O157:H7 increases the rate of survival of E. coli in the presence of grazing protozoa, Tetrahymena pyriformis. In the presence but not the absence of Tetrahymena, the carriage of the Stx-encoding prophage considerably augments the fitness of E. coli K-12 as well as clinical isolates of E. coli O157 by increasing the rate of survival of the bacteria in the food vacuoles of these ciliates. Grazing protozoa in the environment or natural host are likely to play a significant role in the ecology and maintenance of the Stx-encoding prophage of E. coli O157:H7 and may well contribute to the evolution of the virulence of these bacteria to colonize humans.

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