Among three haemolysins identified thus far in Escherichia coli, alpha-haemolysin (HlyA) is encoded on the pathogenicity islands of extraintestinal pathogenic strains, while enterohaemolysin (EhxA) is encoded on the virulence plasmids of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) strains. In contrast, the gene for haemolysin E (HlyE) is located on the E. coli chromosome backbone and is therefore widely distributed among E. coli strains. However, because hlyE gene expression is repressed by the H-NS protein and because the gene has been disrupted in many strains, its haemolytic activity cannot be detected in wild-type strains by routine screening on blood agar plates. In this study, we found that the HlyE-derived haemolytic activity of enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC) O55:H7 can be detected after anaerobic cultivation on a washed blood agar plate (EHX plate) that is used to detect the production of EhxA.We also found that the haemolytic activity of EHECO157:H7 observed on EHX plates under aerobic and anaerobic growth conditions is derived from EhxA and HlyE, respectively; this differential expression of the two haemolysins occurs at the transcriptional level. Our analysis of 60 E. coli strains of various pathotypes and phylogenies for their repertoires of haemolysin genes, haemolytic phenotypes and hlyE gene sequences revealed that HlyE activity can generally be detected on EHX plates under anaerobic growth conditions if the gene is intact. Furthermore, our results indicate that hlyE gene inactivation occurred in three of the five E. coli lineages (phylogroups A, B1 and B2), which demonstrates phylogroup-specific gene disruption patterns.
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