Identification and characterization of virK, a virulence-associated large plasmid gene essential for intercellular spreading of Shigella flexneri



Seven virulence loci have been identified by Tn5 insertion mutagenesis on the large 230 kb plasmid (pMYSH6000) of Shigella flexneri 2a. In this study, we used Tn10 insertion mutagenesis and identified a novel virulence locus on pMYSH6000 responsible for bacterial spread. Characterization of the invading bacteria of the Tn10 insertion mutants in the epithelial cells revealed that the bacteria were capable of at least some intracellular spreading but not intercellular spreading. Immunoblot analysis of lysates of the Tn10 insertion mutants with a VirG-specific antipeptide antibody revealed diminished levels of the 116 kDa VirG protein. The virG mRNA in the mutants, however, was expressed at the same level as that in the wild type. The DNA region required for the virulence phenotype was localized to a 1.6 kb DNA sequence in the Sal I-K fragment on the plasmid, and thus the locus was designated virK. Expression of virK in Escherichia coli using a T7 RNA polymerase-dependent promoter system yielded a 36 kDa protein. The nucleotide sequence of 1642 bp encoding VirK function was determined, and an open reading frame encoding 316 amino acid residues was shown to encode the VirK protein. The virK region was highly conserved among the large virulence plasmids of shigellae and enteroinvasive Escherichia coli. These results suggest that VirK function is an essential virulence determinant for shigellae Involved in the expression of virG gene product at post-transcriptional level.