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Infect Immun. 1997 Sep;65(9):3686-92.

Virulence plasmid instability in Shigella flexneri 2a is induced by virulence gene expression.

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Department of Microbiology and Immunology, F. Edward H├ębert School of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Maryland 20814-4799, USA.


Expression of the predominantly plasmid-encoded virulence regulon of Shigella flexneri 2a is induced by growth at 37 degrees C and repressed by growth at 30 degrees C. During growth at 37 degrees C, spontaneous S. flexneri mutants arise which have undergone virulence plasmid curing or rearrangement and no longer display the virulent phenotype. In the laboratory, the unstable nature of the virulence plasmid causes complete loss of virulence in a growing population. We have undertaken an analysis of virulence plasmid instability, classifying events which produced individual avirulent derivatives within a virulent population and identifying the factor(s) which controlled conversion. Multiplex PCR analysis of DNA obtained from spontaneous avirulent derivatives indicated that virF and virB were deleted or otherwise inactivated in over 97% of the isolates. The virF and virB loci encode regulatory proteins required for transcriptional activation of the virulence regulon. Inactivation of these key regulatory loci in the vast majority of avirulent derivatives which arose during growth at 37 degrees C suggested that virulence gene expression induced virulence plasmid instability. Consistent with this hypothesis, we observed stable virulence plasmid maintenance during growth of a wild-type strain at 30 degrees C where virulence gene expression was repressed. The virulence plasmid was also stably maintained in virF and virB mutants grown at 37 degrees C. Conversely, virulence plasmid destabilization was induced at 30 degrees C and accelerated at 37 degrees C through expression of VirF or VirB from multicopy plasmids. These results indicate that exposure of S. flexneri to conditions favoring induction of the virulent phenotype also favor its loss. The significance of this paradox of Shigella pathogenicity is discussed.

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