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FEMS Microbiol Ecol. 2012 Dec;82(3):574-83. doi: 10.1111/j.1574-6941.2012.01428.x. Epub 2012 Jul 3.

Survival characteristics of diarrheagenic Escherichia coli pathotypes and Helicobacter pylori during passage through the free-living ciliate, Tetrahymena sp.

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School of Public Health, University of California-Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.


Free-living protozoa have been implicated in the survival and transport of pathogens in the environment, but the relationship between non-Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli or Helicobacter pylori and ciliates has not been characterized. Six diarrheagenic pathotypes of E. coli and an isolate of H. pylori were evaluated for their susceptibility to digestion by Tetrahymena, an aquatic ciliate. Tetrahymena strain MB125 was fed E. coli or H. pylori, and the ciliate's egested products examined for viable bacterial pathogens by the BacLight(™) LIVE/DEAD (™) assay, a cell elongation method, and by colony counts. All six diarrheagenic E. coli pathotypes survived digestion, whereas H. pylori was digested. Growth of E. coli on agar plates indicated that the bacteria were able to replicate after passage through the ciliate. Transmission electron micrographs of E. coli cells as intact rods vs. degraded H. pylori cells corroborated these results. Scanning electron microscopy revealed a net-like matrix around intact E. coli cells in fecal pellets. These results suggest a possible role for Tetrahymena and its egested fecal pellets in the dissemination of diarrheagenic E. coli in the environment. This bacterial-protozoan interaction may increase opportunities for transmission of diarrheagenic E. coli to mammalian hosts including humans.

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