Type 1 pili in Escherichia coli undergo phase variation in which individual cells in a population reversibly switch between piliated (Pil+) and nonpiliated (Pil-) states. The switching process is mediated by an invertible DNA fragment which contains the promoter for fimA, the gene encoding the major structural subunit of type 1 pili. Although type 1 pili randomly phase vary in broth cultures, many clinical isolates of E. coli do not express type 1 pili when cultured on agar media. We investigated the role of the invertible element and the upstream genes, fimB and fimE, in the agar- mediated suppression of pili in an agar-negative clinical isolate, strain 149. Southern hybridization and polymerase chain reaction analyses of the fimA promoter region in broth-grown 149 cells indicated that the invertible element was present in orientations corresponding to both Pil+ and Pil- phenotypes. In contrast, only one orientation of the invertible element, corresponding to the Pil- phenotype, was observed in strain 149 cells cultured on agar. A second clinical isolate, strain 2-7, which expresses type 1 pili on agar was also examined; the invertible element was found in both the Pil+ and Pil- orientations during growth of this strain on agar as well as in broth. The introduction of the fim gene cluster from strain J96 on a multicopy plasmid into agar-negative strain 149 resulted in the production of both J96 and 149 pili during growth on agar. Experiments with subclones of the J96 genes indicated that the presence of an intact fimB gene allowed strain 149 pili to be produced on agar. Northern (RNA) hybridizations showed that transcripts of fimB and fimA, as well as an antisense transcript of fimE, were present in broth-grown cells of strain 149, but not in agar-grown cells. Only fimE transcripts were present in agar-grown cells, but they appeared to be degraded and were not consistently observed. Transcripts of fimA, fimB, fimE, and antisense fimE were detected in both broth- and agar- grown cells of phase-variable strain 2-7. The results suggest that in agar- negative strain 149, the fimA promoter element is phase locked in an off orientation on agar. Differences in pilus production between agar and broth cultures appear to be the result of differential transcription of fimB and fimE under the two growth conditions. In contrast, the pattern of expression of these genes in agar phase-variable strain 2-7 did not differ between broth- and agar-grown cells.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Molecular Biology