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Mol Biol Evol. 2004 Jun;21(6):1085-94. Epub 2004 Mar 10.

A specific genetic background is required for acquisition and expression of virulence factors in Escherichia coli.

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INSERM E0339, Faculté de Médecine Xavier Bichat, Paris, France.


In bacteria, the evolution of pathogenicity seems to be the result of the constant arrival of virulence factors (VFs) into the bacterial genome. However, the integration, retention, and/or expression of these factors may be the result of the interaction between the new arriving genes and the bacterial genomic background. To test this hypothesis, a phylogenetic analysis was done on a collection of 98 Escherichia coli/Shigella strains representing the pathogenic and commensal diversity of the species. The distribution of 17 VFs associated to the different E. coli pathovars was superimposed on the phylogenetic tree. Three major types of VFs can be recognized: (1) VFs that arrive and are expressed in different genetic backgrounds (such as VFs associated with the pathovars of mild chronic diarrhea: enteroaggregative, enteropathogenic, and diffusely-adhering E. coli), (2) VFs that arrive in different genetic backgrounds but are preferentially found, associated with a specific pathology, in only one particular background (such as VFs associated with extraintestinal diseases), and (3) VFs that require a particular genetic background for the arrival and expression of their virulence potential (such as VFs associated with pathovars typical of severe acute diarrhea: enterohemorragic, enterotoxigenic, and enteroinvasive E. coli strains). The possibility of a single arrival of VFs by chance, followed by a vertical transmission, was ruled out by comparing the evolutionary histories of some of these VFs to the strain phylogeny. These evidences suggest that important changes in the genome of E. coli have occurred during the diversification of the species, allowing the virulence factors associated with severe acute diarrhea to arrive in the population. Thus, the E. coli genome seems to be formed by an "ancestral" and a "derived" background, each one responsible for the acquisition and expression of different virulence factors.

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