Typical enteropathogenic Escherichia coli (EPEC) O55:H7 is regarded as the closest relative of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) O157:H7. Both serotypes usually express the γ1 intimin subclass and trigger actin polymerization by the Tir-TccP pathway. However, atypical O55:H7 strains capable of triggering actin polymerization via the Tir-Nck pathway have recently been identified. In this study, we investigated the genotypic differences and phylogenetic relationships between typical and atypical O55:H7 strains. We show that the atypical O55:H7 strains, which express the θ intimin subclass and lack both tccP and tccP2, belong to an E. coli lineage distinct from the typical O55:H7 and from the EPEC O55:H6, which also uses the Tir-Nck actin polymerization pathway. We conducted genomic comparisons of the chromosomal regions covering the O-antigen gene cluster and its flanking regions between the three O55 lineages by RFLP analysis of PCR products and DNA sequencing analysis of about 65 kb chromosomal regions. This unexpectedly revealed that horizontal transfer of large fragments (≥40 kb) encoding the O55-antigen gene cluster and part of the neighbouring colanic acid gene cluster was involved in the emergence of the three O55 E. coli lineages. The data provide new insights into the mechanisms involved in the generation of a wide variety of O-serotypes in Gram-negative bacteria.
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