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Summary

Enteropathogenic Escherichia coli (EPEC) is a causative agent of infant diarrhoea in developing countries. The EspF protein is the product of the espF gene found on the locus of enterocyte effacement, the key pathogenicity island carried by EPEC and enterohemorrhagic E. coli. EspF is injected from adherent EPEC into host cells via a type III secretion system and was previously shown to induce apoptotic cell death and to be required for disruption of host intestinal barrier function. In this work, we show by immunofluorescence and fractionation studies that EspF is targeted to host mitochondria. The N-terminal region of EspF serves as a mitochondrial import signal and, when expressed within cells, can target hybrid green fluorescent protein to mitochondria. Assessment of mitochondrial membrane potential in infected epithelial cells indicated that EspF plays a role in the mitochondrial membrane permeabilization induced by EPEC infection. Furthermore, EspF was associated with the release of cytochrome c from mitochondria into the cytoplasm and with caspase-9 and caspase-3 cleavage. These findings indicate a role for EspF in initiating the mitochondrial death pathway.