Alignment of the maximum common genome (MCG) of 99 E.coli strains (EHEC and aEPEC)
Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) are a cause of bloody diarrhea, hemorrhagic colitis (HC) and the potentially fatal hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). While O157:H7 is the dominant EHEC serotype, non-O157 EHEC have emerged as serious causes of disease. In Germany, the most important non-O157 O-serogroups causing one third of EHEC infections are O26, O103, O111 and O145. Interestingly we identified EHEC O-serogroups O26 and O111 in one single sequence type complex, STC29, that also harbours atypical enteropathogenic E. coli (aEPEC). aEPEC differ from typical EHEC merely in the absence of stx-genes. These findings inspired us to unravel a putative microevolutionary scenario of these non-O157 EHEC by whole genome analyses. Analysis of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) of the maximum common genome (MCG) of 20 aEPEC (11 human/ 9 bovine) and 79 EHEC (42 human/ 36 bovine/ 1 food source) of STC29 identified three distinct clusters: Cluster 1 harboured strains of O-serogroup O111, the central Cluster 2 harboured only O26 aEPEC strains, while the more heterogeneous Cluster 3 contained both EHEC and aEPEC strains of O-serogroup O26. Further combined analysis of accessory virulence associated genes (VAGs) and insertion sites for mobile genetic elements suggested a parallel evolution of the MCG and the acquisition of virulence genes. The resulting microevolutionary model reveals the development of two distinct EHEC lineages from one common aEPEC ancestor of ST29 by lysogenic conversion with stx-converting bacteriophages, independent of the host species the strains had been isolated from. In conclusion, our cumulative data provide evidence that EHEC of O-serogroups O26 and O111 of STC29 originate from a common aEPEC ancestor and are bona fide zoonotic agents. The role of aEPEC in the emergence of O26 and O111 EHEC should be considered for infection control measures to prevent possible lysogenic conversion with stx-converting bacteriophages as major vehicle driving the emergence of EHEC lineages with direct Public Health consequences.