Evolution of Polymyxin Resistance Regulates Colibactin Production in Escherichia coli

ACS Chem Biol. 2021 Jul 16;16(7):1243-1254. doi: 10.1021/acschembio.1c00322. Epub 2021 Jul 7.


The complex reservoir of metabolite-producing bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract contributes tremendously to human health and disease. Bacterial composition, and by extension gut metabolomic composition, is undoubtably influenced by the use of modern antibiotics. Herein, we demonstrate that polymyxin B, a last resort antibiotic, influences the production of the genotoxic metabolite colibactin from adherent-invasive Escherichia coli (AIEC) NC101. Colibactin can promote colorectal cancer through DNA double stranded breaks and interstrand cross-links. While the structure and biosynthesis of colibactin have been elucidated, chemical-induced regulation of its biosynthetic gene cluster and subsequent production of the genotoxin by E. coli are largely unexplored. Using a multiomic approach, we identified that polymyxin B stress enhances the abundance of colibactin biosynthesis proteins (Clb's) in multiple pks+ E. coli strains, including pro-carcinogenic AIEC, NC101; the probiotic strain, Nissle 1917; and the antibiotic testing strain, ATCC 25922. Expression analysis via qPCR revealed that increased transcription of clb genes likely contributes to elevated Clb protein levels in NC101. Enhanced production of Clb's by NC101 under polymyxin stress matched an increased production of the colibactin prodrug motif, a proxy for the mature genotoxic metabolite. Furthermore, E. coli with a heightened tolerance for polymyxin induced greater mammalian DNA damage, assessed by quantification of γH2AX staining in cultured intestinal epithelial cells. This study establishes a key link between the polymyxin B stress response and colibactin production in pks+ E. coli. Ultimately, our findings will inform future studies investigating colibactin regulation and the ability of seemingly innocuous commensal microbes to induce host disease.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Cell Line
  • Drug Resistance, Bacterial / drug effects*
  • Escherichia coli / drug effects*
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / genetics
  • Genes, Bacterial / drug effects
  • Multigene Family / drug effects
  • Mutagens / metabolism
  • Peptide Synthases / genetics
  • Peptides / drug effects*
  • Peptides / metabolism
  • Polyketide Synthases / genetics
  • Polyketides / metabolism
  • Polymyxins / pharmacology*
  • Rats
  • Up-Regulation / drug effects


  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Mutagens
  • Peptides
  • Polyketides
  • Polymyxins
  • colibactin
  • Polyketide Synthases
  • Peptide Synthases