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Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) strains can colonize cattle for several months and may, thus, serve as gene reservoirs for the genesis of highly virulent zoonotic enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC). Attempts to reduce the human risk for acquiring EHEC infections should include strategies to control such STEC strains persisting in cattle. We therefore aimed to identify genetic patterns associated with the STEC colonization type in the bovine host. We included 88 persistent colonizing STEC (STEC(per)) (shedding for ≥4 months) and 74 sporadically colonizing STEC (STEC(spo)) (shedding for ≤2 months) isolates from cattle and 16 bovine STEC isolates with unknown colonization types. Genoserotypes and multilocus sequence types (MLSTs) were determined, and the isolates were probed with a DNA microarray for virulence-associated genes (VAGs). All STEC(per) isolates belonged to only four genoserotypes (O26:H11, O156:H25, O165:H25, O182:H25), which formed three genetic clusters (ST21/396/1705, ST300/688, ST119). In contrast, STEC(spo) isolates were scattered among 28 genoserotypes and 30 MLSTs, with O157:H7 (ST11) and O6:H49 (ST1079) being the most prevalent. The microarray analysis identified 139 unique gene patterns that clustered with the genoserotypes and MLSTs of the strains. While the STEC(per) isolates possessed heterogeneous phylogenetic backgrounds, the accessory genome clustered these isolates together, separating them from the STEC(spo) isolates. Given the vast genetic heterogeneity of bovine STEC strains, defining the genetic patterns distinguishing STEC(per) from STEC(spo) isolates will facilitate the targeted design of new intervention strategies to counteract these zoonotic pathogens at the farm level.
Ruminants, especially cattle, are sources of food-borne infections by Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) in humans. Some STEC strains persist in cattle for longer periods of time, while others are detected only sporadically. Persisting strains can serve as gene reservoirs that supply E. coli with virulence factors, thereby generating new outbreak strains. Attempts to reduce the human risk for acquiring STEC infections should therefore include strategies to control such persisting STEC strains. By analyzing representative genes of their core and accessory genomes, we show that bovine STEC with a persistent colonization type emerged independently from sporadically colonizing isolates and evolved in parallel evolutionary branches. However, persistent colonizing strains share similar sets of accessory genes. Defining the genetic patterns that distinguish persistent from sporadically colonizing STEC isolates will facilitate the targeted design of new intervention strategies to counteract these zoonotic pathogens at the farm level.