Infection and immunity

Phenotypic Heterogeneity in Expression of the K1 Polysaccharide Capsule of Uropathogenic Escherichia coli and Downregulation of the Capsule Genes during Growth in Urine.

PMID 25870229


Uropathogenic Escherichia coli (UPEC) is the major causative agent of uncomplicated urinary tract infections (UTI). The K1 capsule on the surface of UPEC strains is a key virulence factor, and its expression may be important in the onset and progression of UTI. In order to understand capsule expression in more detail, we analyzed its expression in the UPEC strain UTI89 during growth in rich medium (LB medium) and urine and during infection of a bladder epithelial cell line. Comparison of capsule gene transcription using a chromosomal gfp reporter fusion showed a significant reduction in transcription during growth in urine compared to that during growth in LB medium. When examined at the single-cell level, following growth in both media, capsule gene expression appears to be heterogeneous, with two distinct green fluorescent protein (GFP)-expressing populations. Using anti-K1 antibody, we showed that this heterogeneity in gene expression results in two populations of encapsulated and unencapsulated cells. We demonstrated that the capsule hinders attachment to and invasion of epithelial cells and that the unencapsulated cells within the population preferentially adhere to and invade bladder epithelial cells. We found that once internalized, UTI89 starts to produce capsule to aid in its intracellular survival and spread. We propose that this observed phenotypic diversity in capsule expression is a fitness strategy used by the bacterium to deal with the constantly changing environment of the urinary tract.