Distinct transcriptional profiles and phenotypes exhibited by Escherichia coli O157:H7 isolates related to the 2006 spinach-associated outbreak.
In 2006, a large outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 was linked to the consumption of ready-to-eat bagged baby spinach in the United States. The likely sources of preharvest spinach contamination were soil and water that became contaminated via cattle or feral pigs in the proximity of the spinach fields. In this study, we compared the transcriptional profiles of 12 E. coli O157:H7 isolates that possess the same two-enzyme pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) profile and are related temporally or geographically to the above outbreak. These E. coli O157:H7 isolates included three clinical isolates, five isolates from separate bags of spinach, and single isolates from pasture soil, river water, cow feces, and a feral pig. The three clinical isolates and two spinach bag isolates grown in cultures to stationary phase showed decreased expression of many σS-regulated genes, including gadA, osmE, osmY, and katE, compared with the soil, water, cow, feral pig, and the other three spinach bag isolates. The decreased expression of these σS-regulated genes was correlated with the decreased resistance of the isolates to acid stress, osmotic stress, and oxidative stress but increases in scavenging ability. We also observed that intraisolate variability was much more pronounced among the clinical and spinach isolates than among the environmental isolates. Together, the transcriptional and phenotypic differences of the spinach outbreak isolates of E. coli O157:H7 support the hypothesis that some variants within the spinach bag retained characteristics of the preharvest isolates, whereas other variants with altered gene expression and phenotypes infected the human host.