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J Bacteriol. 2016 Apr 28;198(10):1487-98. doi: 10.1128/JB.00791-15. Print 2016 May 15.

Molecular Characterization of the Vacuolating Autotransporter Toxin in Uropathogenic Escherichia coli.

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Australian Infectious Disease Research Centre, School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, School of Biomedical Sciences, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
Department of Microbiology and Immunology, The University of Melbourne at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, Melbourne, Australia.
Institute of Microbiology and Infection, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom.
School of Medical Science and Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia.
Australian Infectious Disease Research Centre, School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


The vacuolating autotransporter toxin (Vat) contributes to uropathogenic Escherichia coli (UPEC) fitness during systemic infection. Here, we characterized Vat and investigated its regulation in UPEC. We assessed the prevalence of vat in a collection of 45 UPEC urosepsis strains and showed that it was present in 31 (68%) of the isolates. The isolates containing the vat gene corresponded to three major E. coli sequence types (ST12, ST73, and ST95), and these strains secreted the Vat protein. Further analysis of the vat genomic locus identified a conserved gene located directly downstream of vat that encodes a putative MarR-like transcriptional regulator; we termed this gene vatX The vat-vatX genes were present in the UPEC reference strain CFT073, and reverse transcriptase PCR (RT-PCR) revealed that the two genes are cotranscribed. Overexpression of vatX in CFT073 led to a 3-fold increase in vat gene transcription. The vat promoter region contained three putative nucleation sites for the global transcriptional regulator histone-like nucleoid structuring protein (H-NS); thus, the hns gene was mutated in CFT073 (to generate CFT073 hns). Western blot analysis using a Vat-specific antibody revealed a significant increase in Vat expression in CFT073 hns compared to that in wild-type CFT073. Direct H-NS binding to the vat promoter region was demonstrated using purified H-NS in combination with electrophoresis mobility shift assays. Finally, Vat-specific antibodies were detected in plasma samples from urosepsis patients infected by vat-containing UPEC strains, demonstrating that Vat is expressed during infection. Overall, this study has demonstrated that Vat is a highly prevalent and tightly regulated immunogenic serine protease autotransporter protein of Enterobacteriaceae (SPATE) secreted by UPEC during infection.


Uropathogenic Escherichia coli (UPEC) is the major cause of hospital- and community-acquired urinary tract infections. The vacuolating autotransporter toxin (Vat) is a cytotoxin known to contribute to UPEC fitness during murine sepsis infection. In this study, Vat was found to be highly conserved and prevalent among a collection of urosepsis clinical isolates and was expressed at human core body temperature. Regulation of vat was demonstrated to be directly repressed by the global transcriptional regulator H-NS and upregulated by the downstream gene vatX (encoding a new MarR-type transcriptional regulator). Additionally, increased Vat-specific IgG titers were detected in plasma from corresponding urosepsis patients infected with vat-positive isolates. Hence, Vat is a highly conserved and tightly regulated urosepsis-associated virulence factor.

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