Spontaneous non-rdar mutations increase fitness of Salmonella in plants


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Proliferation of human enteric pathogens within alternate hosts, like plants, leads to temporal changes in gene expression and also selects for the phenotypic variants of the enterics that are presumed to be more fit within plants. Human enteric pathogens recovered from produce-borne outbreaks exhibit peculiar phenotypes, for example many of them do not display the rdar (red dry and rough) phenotype. The non-rdar phenotype results from mutations in cellulose and/or curli synthesis or regulation. How often these mutants arise, and whether they are more fit within plants is not entirely clear. We addressed this hypothesis by sequentially passaging the type strain of Salmonella enterica sv. Typhimurium ATCC14028 through tomatoes. Two spontaneous mutants defective in their ability to form red dry and rough colonies were further characterized. Even though attachment of the mutants to tomato surfaces was modestly reduced, they were 5- to 50-fold more competitive than the wild-type inside tomato fruits. Because the mutants were outcompeted by the wild-type on common laboratory media, and not in tomatoes, the lack of the rdar phenotype is probably beneficial within tomatoes. Recombinase-based in vivo expression tests indicate that the agfB and yihT genes were regulated differently in the mutants, although the corresponding mutations cannot fully account for the increased competitive fitness of the mutants. One of the variants has a mutated rpoS, which also reduced the expression of a SPI-5 effector encoded by sopB. A survey of the Salmonella strains recovered from produce outbreaks revealed that some were similarly non-rdar, likely containing rpoS mutations. This report indicates that the ‘perfect storm’ scenario, typically used to model outbreaks of produce-borne gastroenteritis, needs to account for the ability of the pathogen to rapidly evolve and adapt to the crop production environments.