Background: Though RpoS is important for survival of pathogenic Escherichia coli in natural environments, polymorphism in the rpoS gene is common. However, the causes of this polymorphism and consequential physiological effects on gene expression in pathogenic strains are not fully understood.
Results: In this study, we found that growth on non-preferred carbon sources can efficiently select for loss of RpoS in seven of ten representative verocytotoxin-producing E. coli (VTEC) strains. Mutants (Suc++) forming large colonies on succinate were isolated at a frequency of 10-8 mutants per cell plated. Strain O157:H7 EDL933 yielded mainly mutants (about 90%) that were impaired in catalase expression, suggesting the loss of RpoS function. As expected, inactivating mutations in rpoS sequence were identified in these mutants. Expression of two pathogenicity-related phenotypes, cell adherence and RDAR (red dry and rough) morphotype, were also attenuated, indicating positive control by RpoS. For the other Suc++ mutants (10%) that were catalase positive, no mutation in rpoS was detected.
Conclusion: The selection for loss of RpoS on poor carbon sources is also operant in most pathogenic strains, and thus is likely responsible for the occurrence of rpoS polymorphisms among E. coli isolates.