Although Escherichia coli is generally considered to be predominantly a commensal of the gastrointestinal tract, a number of recent studies suggest that it is also capable of long-term survival and growth in environments outside the host. As the extraintestinal physical and chemical conditions are often different from those within the host, it is possible that distinct genetic adaptations may be required to enable this transition. Several studies have shown a trade-off between growth and stress resistance in nutrient-poor environments, with lesions in the rpoS locus, which encodes the stress sigma factor RpoS (σ(S)). In this study, we investigated a unique collection of long-term soil-persistent E. coli isolates to determine whether the RpoS-controlled general stress response is altered during adaptation to a nutrient-poor extraintestinal environment. The sequence of the rpoS locus was found to be highly conserved in these isolates, and no nonsense or frameshift mutations were detected. Known RpoS-dependent phenotypes, including glycogen synthesis and γ-aminobutyrate production, were found to be conserved in all strains. All strains expressed the full-length RpoS protein, which was fully functional using the RpoS-dependent promoter reporter fusion PgadX::gfp RpoS was shown to be essential for long-term soil survival of E. coli, since mutants lacking rpoS lost viability rapidly in soil survival assays. Thus, despite some phenotypic heterogeneity, the soil-persistent strains all retained a fully functional RpoS-regulated general stress response, which we interpret to indicate that the stresses encountered in soil provide a strong selective pressure for maintaining stress resistance, despite limited nutrient availability.
Importance: Escherichia coli has been, and continues to be, used as an important indicator species reflecting potential fecal contamination events in the environment. However, recent studies have questioned the validity of this, since E. coli has been found to be capable of long-term colonization of soils. This study investigated whether long-term soil-persistent E. coli strains have evolved altered stress resistance characteristics. In particular, the study investigated whether the main regulator of genes involved in stress protection, the sigma factor RpoS, has been altered in the soil-persistent strains. The results show that RpoS stress protection is fully conserved in soil-persistent strains of E. coli They also show that loss of the rpoS gene dramatically reduces the ability of this organism to survive in a soil environment. Overall, the results indicate that soil represents a stressful environment for E. coli, and their survival in it requires that they deploy a full stress protection response.
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