Toxin promotes cattle-to-cattle transmission of E. coli O157

Shiga toxin subtype 2a (Stx2a) may play a key role in promoting the colonization and transmission of Escherichia coli O157 strains in cattle, according to a study published in PLOS Pathogens by Tom McNeilly of the Moredun Research Institute, David Gally of the University of Edinburgh, and colleagues. As these bacteria evolve ways to increase the activity of Shiga toxins, they may become more of a threat to human health.

Specific E. coli strains infected with viruses that produce Shiga toxin can cause severe symptoms in humans, including bloody diarrhoea and kidney damage. In many countries, the most serious symptoms in humans are associated with E. coli strains that express Stx2a. These strains do not produce symptoms in cattle – a natural reservoir host. The role of this toxin in the animal reservoir is still not entirely clear.

McNeilly, Gally and colleagues tested whether Stx2a is important for calf-to-calf transmission by comparing E. coli O157 strains with and without Stx2a. They found that Stx2a is produced rapidly, restricts the growth of bovine gastrointestinal organoids, and plays a role in establishing E. coli O157 colonization in the bovine gastrointestinal tract. The findings also show that Stx2a facilitates effective cattle-to-cattle transmission and may have led to the expansion of Stx2a producing E. coli O157 strains in cattle populations. The authors propose a model in which Stx2a enhances E. coli O157 colonization by restricting the regeneration and turnover of the tissue lining the gut. According to the authors, research in this area highlights the value of understanding Shiga toxin activity and drivers for its selection and maintenance in the animal reservoir, which may inform strategies that can reduce the threat to human health.

Gally commented, “The study is important as it explains why the Stx2a toxin subtype has become common in E. coli O157 strains in cattle: (1) that it can be produced more rapidly compared to some other Stx subtypes and so has taken over; (2) that it provides an advantage in the animal host by halting the usual turnover of gut cells that would remove adherent E. coli, so the bacteria colonise more easily, persist in the gut and can be excreted at high levels to go onto infect other animals and humans.”

In September, Moredun Research Institute announced that it has signed an agreement with Roslin Technologies, Scotland’s Rural College and the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, to fund the commercial development of an E. coli O157:H7 vaccine for cattle to prevent foodborne illness in humans [Press release].

Article: Fitzgerald, S.F., Beckett, A.E., Palarea-Albaladejo, J., McAteer, S., Shaaban, S., Morgan, J., Ahmad, N. I., Young, R., Mabbott, N. A., Morrison, L., Bono, J. L., Gally, D. L., McNeilly, T. N. (2019). Shiga toxin sub-type 2a increases the efficiency of Escherichia coli O157 transmission between animals and restricts epithelial regeneration in bovine enteroids. PLoS Pathogens 15(10): e1008003, doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1008003