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Summary

Advances in the understanding of the pathogenesis of enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) have greatly benefited from the use of human epithelial cell lines under aerobic conditions. However, in the target site of EHEC infection, the human intestine, conditions are microaerobic. In our study we used polarized human colon carcinoma cells in a vertical diffusion chamber system to investigate the influence of reduced apical oxygen levels on EHEC colonization. While apical microaerobiosis did not affect cell integrity and barrier function, numbers of adherent bacteria were significantly increased under low compared with high apical oxygen concentrations. In addition, expression and translocation of EHEC type III secreted (T3S) effector proteins was considerably enhanced under microaerobic conditions and dependent on the presence of host cells. Increased colonization was mainly mediated via EspA as adherence levels of an isogenic deletion mutant were not influenced by low oxygen levels. Other potential adherence factors (E. coli common pilus and flagella) were only minimally expressed under high and low oxygen levels. Addition of nitrate and trimethylamine N-oxide as terminal electron acceptors for anaerobic respiration failed to further increase bacterial colonization or T3S under microaerobiosis. This study indicates that EHEC T3S and colonization are enhanced by the microaerobic environment in the gut and therefore might be underestimated in conventional aerobic cell culture systems.