Type III secretion systems (TTSSs) are employed by pathogens to translocate host cells with effector proteins, which are crucial for virulence. The dynamics of effector translocation, behavior of the translocating bacteria, translocation temporal order, and relative amounts of each of the translocated effectors are all poorly characterized. To address these issues, we developed a microscopy-based assay that tracks effector translocation. We used this assay alongside a previously described real-time population-based translocation assay, focusing mainly on enteropathogenic Escherichia coli (EPEC) and partly comparing it to Salmonella. We found that the two pathogens exhibit different translocation behaviors: in EPEC, a subpopulation that formed microcolonies carried out most of the translocation activity, while Salmonella executed protein translocation as planktonic bacteria. We also noted variability in host cell susceptibility, with some cells highly resistant to translocation. We next extended the study to determine the translocation dynamics of twenty EPEC effectors and found that all exhibited distinct levels of translocation efficiency. Further, we mapped the global effects of key TTSS-related components on TTSS activity. Our results provide a comprehensive description of the dynamics of the TTSS activity of EPEC and new insights into the mechanisms that control the dynamics.
Importance: EPEC and the closely related enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) represent a global public health problem. New strategies to combat EPEC and EHEC infections are needed, and development of such strategies requires better understanding of their virulence machinery. The TTSS is a critical virulence mechanism employed by these pathogens, and by others, including Salmonella. In this study, we aimed at elucidating new aspects of TTSS function. The results obtained provide a comprehensive description of the dynamics of TTSS activity of EPEC and new insights into the mechanisms that control these changes. This knowledge sets the stage for further analysis of the system and may accelerate the development of new ways to treat EPEC and EHEC infections. Further, the newly described microscopy-based assay can be readily adapted to study the dynamics of TTSS activity in other pathogens.