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Summary

Hfq is a conserved RNA-binding protein that regulates diverse cellular processes through post-transcriptional control of gene expression, often by functioning as a chaperone for regulatory sRNAs. Here, we explored the role of Hfq in enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC), a group of non-invasive intestinal pathogens. EHEC virulence is dependent on a Type III secretion system encoded in the LEE pathogenicity island. The abundance of transcripts for all 41 LEE genes and more than half of confirmed non-LEE-encoded T3 effectors were elevated in an EHEC hfq deletion mutant. Thus, Hfq promotes co-ordinated expression of the LEE-encoded T3S apparatus and both LEE- and non-LEE-encoded effectors. Increased transcript levels led to the formation of functional secretion complexes capable of secreting high quantities of effectors into the supernatant. The increase in LEE-derived transcripts and proteins was dependent on Ler, the LEE-encoded transcriptional activator, and the ler transcript appears to be a direct target of Hfq-mediated negative regulation. Finally, we found that Hfq contributes to the negative regulation of T3SSs in several other pathogens, suggesting that Hfq, potentially along with species-specific sRNAs, underlies a common means to prevent unfettered expression of T3SSs.