The type IV bundle-forming pilus of enteropathogenic Escherichia coli undergoes dramatic alterations in structure associated with bacterial adherence, aggregation and dispersal

Authors


Stuart Knutton , E-mail s.knutton@bham.ac.uk; Tel. (+44) 121 333 8746; Fax (+44) 121 333 8701.

Abstract

BFP, a plasmid-encoded type IV bundle-forming pilus produced by enteropathogenic Escherichia coli (EPEC), has recently been shown to be associated with the aggregation of bacteria and dispersal of bacteria from bacterial microcolonies. In standard 3 h HEp-2 cell assays, EPEC adhere in localized microcolonies; after 6 h, bacterial microcolonies are no longer present, indicating that bacterial aggregation and dispersal occurs in vitro during EPEC adhesion to cultured epithelial cells. To examine the role of BFP in EPEC aggregation and dispersal, we examined HEp-2 cell adhesion of strain E2348/69 and defined E2348/69 mutants by immunofluorescence and immunoelectron microscopy. BFP was expressed initially as ≈ 40 nm diameter pilus bundles that promoted bacteria–bacteria interaction and microcolony formation. BFP subsequently underwent a striking alteration in structural organization with the formation of much longer and thicker (≈ 100 nm diameter) pilus bundles, which frequently aggregated laterally to form even thicker bundles often arranged in a loose three-dimensional network; EPEC dispersal from bacterial microcolonies was associated with this transformation of BFP from thin to thick bundles. Bacterial dispersal and transformation of BFP from thin to thick bundles did not occur with a bfpF mutant of strain E2348/69. It is concluded that BFP promotes both the formation and the dispersal of EPEC microcolonies, that the dispersal phase requires BfpF and that dispersal is associated with dramatic alterations in the structure of BFP bundles.

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