The flagella of enteropathogenic Escherichia coli mediate adherence to epithelial cells

Mol Microbiol. 2002 Apr;44(2):361-79. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2958.2002.02899.x.


Enteropathogenic Escherichia coli (EPEC) utilizes a type III protein secretion system to target effector molecules into the host cell leading to effacement of the intestinal mucosa. This secretion apparatus shares many structural features of the flagellar type III export system involved in flagella assembly and motility. We report here that fliC insertional mutants constructed in two wild-type EPEC strains were markedly impaired in adherence and microcolony formation on cultured cells. An E. coli K-12 strain harbouring the EPEC H6 fliC gene on a plasmid showed discrete adhering clusters on HeLa cells, albeit to less extent than the wild-type EPEC strain. Flagella purified from EPEC bound to cultured epithelial cells and antiflagella antibodies blocked adherence of several EPEC serotypes. We determined that eukaryotic cells in culture stimulate expression of flagella by motile and non-motile EPEC. Isogenic strains mutated in perA (a transcriptional activator), bfpA (a type IV pilin), luxS (a quorum-sensing autoinducer gene) and in the type III secretion genes were reduced for motility in Dulbecco's modified Eagle medium (DMEM) motility agar and produced none or few flagella when associated with epithelial cells. Growth of these mutants in preconditioned tissue culture medium restored motility and their ability to produce flagella, suggesting the influence of a signal provided by mammalian cells that triggers flagella production. This study shows for the first time that the flagella of EPEC are directly involved in the adherence of these bacteria and supports the existence of a molecular relationship between the two existing type III secretion pathways of EPEC, the EPEC adherence factor (EAF) plasmid-encoded regulator, quorum sensing and epithelial cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Adhesion / physiology*
  • Culture Media, Conditioned
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / pathogenicity*
  • Escherichia coli / ultrastructure*
  • Flagella / physiology*
  • Flagella / ultrastructure
  • HeLa Cells
  • Humans
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Mutagenesis
  • Serotyping
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • Culture Media, Conditioned