Hypervirulent (hypermucoviscous) Klebsiella pneumoniae (hvKP) strains are an emerging variant of "classical" K. pneumoniae (cKP) that cause organ and life-threatening infection in healthy individuals. An understanding of hvKP-specific virulence mechanisms that enabled evolution from cKP is limited. Observations by our group and previously published molecular epidemiologic data led us to hypothesize that hvKP strains produced more siderophores than cKP strains and that this trait enhanced hvKP virulence. Quantitative analysis of 12 hvKP strains in iron-poor minimal medium or human ascites fluid showed a significant and distinguishing 6- to 10-fold increase in siderophore production compared to that for 14 cKP strains. Surprisingly, high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC)-mass spectrometry and characterization of the hvKP strains hvKP1, A1142, and A1365 and their isogenic aerobactin-deficient (ΔiucA) derivatives established that aerobactin accounted for the overwhelming majority of increased siderophore production and that this was not due to gene copy number. Further, aerobactin was the primary factor in conditioned medium that enhanced the growth/survival of hvKP1 in human ascites fluid. Importantly the ex vivo growth/survival of hvKP1 ΔiucA was significantly less than that of hvKP1 in human ascites fluid, and the survival of outbred CD1 mice challenged subcutaneously or intraperitoneally with hvKP1 was significantly less than that of mice challenged with hvKP1 ΔiucA. The lowest subcutaneous and intraperitoneal challenge inocula of 3 × 10(2) and 3.2 × 10(1) CFU, respectively, resulted in 100% mortality, demonstrating the virulence of hvKP1 and its ability to cause infection at a low dose. These data strongly support that aerobactin accounts for increased siderophore production in hvKP compared to cKP (a potential defining trait) and is an important virulence factor.
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