Toxin-antitoxin systems are important for niche-specific colonization and stress resistance of uropathogenic Escherichia coli

PLoS Pathog. 2012;8(10):e1002954. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1002954. Epub 2012 Oct 4.


Toxin-antitoxin (TA) systems are prevalent in many bacterial genomes and have been implicated in biofilm and persister cell formation, but the contribution of individual chromosomally encoded TA systems during bacterial pathogenesis is not well understood. Of the known TA systems encoded by Escherichia coli, only a subset is associated with strains of extraintestinal pathogenic E. coli (ExPEC). These pathogens colonize diverse niches and are a major cause of sepsis, meningitis, and urinary tract infections. Using a murine infection model, we show that two TA systems (YefM-YoeB and YbaJ-Hha) independently promote colonization of the bladder by the reference uropathogenic ExPEC isolate CFT073, while a third TA system comprised of the toxin PasT and the antitoxin PasI is critical to ExPEC survival within the kidneys. The PasTI TA system also enhances ExPEC persister cell formation in the presence of antibiotics and markedly increases pathogen resistance to nutrient limitation as well as oxidative and nitrosative stresses. On its own, low-level expression of PasT protects ExPEC from these stresses, whereas overexpression of PasT is toxic and causes bacterial stasis. PasT-induced stasis can be rescued by overexpression of PasI, indicating that PasTI is a bona fide TA system. By mutagenesis, we find that the stress resistance and toxic effects of PasT can be uncoupled and mapped to distinct domains. Toxicity was specifically linked to sequences within the N-terminus of PasT, a region that also promotes the development of persister cells. These results indicate discrete, multipurpose functions for a TA-associated toxin and demonstrate that individual TA systems can provide bacteria with pronounced fitness advantages dependent on toxin expression levels and the specific environmental niche occupied.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antitoxins / genetics
  • Antitoxins / metabolism
  • Bacterial Toxins / genetics*
  • Bacterial Toxins / metabolism*
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / genetics*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / metabolism*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C3H
  • Urinary Bladder / microbiology
  • Urinary Tract Infections / microbiology*
  • Uropathogenic Escherichia coli / metabolism*


  • Antitoxins
  • Bacterial Toxins
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • RatA protein, E coli
  • YefM protein, E coli
  • YoeB protein, E coli
  • hha protein, E coli