Escherichia coli O103, a major agent of weaned-rabbit diarrhea in Western Europe, was previously shown to produce diarrhea and attaching-and-effacing intestinal lesions in experimentally infected rabbits and to possess a homolog of the eaeA gene of enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC). In the present study, we have shown that although negative in the fluorescent-actin staining test on HeLa cells, prototype rabbit E. coli O103 strain B10 was able to induce an original cytopathic effect (CPE) in the same interaction model. This CPE was characterized by a generalized reorganization of the actin cytoskeleton and the formation of focal adhesions on the entire surface of the target cells. These effects amplified with time, leading to cell death about 5 days after the interaction. They were produced by all rabbit E. coli O103 strains tested, by rabbit-infecting E. coli RDEC-1, and also by two human EPEC isolates. We localized genes associated with CPE by using TnphoA insertion mutagenesis in strain B10. In all five independent CPE-negative mutants that we were able to generate, the insertion was located in a region of the genome homologous to the 35-kb locus of enterocyte effacement (LEE locus) of EPEC E2348/69. The mutants concurrently lost the ability to secrete four major supernatant proteins of 25, 37, 39, and 40 kDa, which were shown by immunoprecipitation to share antigenic determinants with secreted proteins of human EPEC E2348/69. The virulence of one of these mutants (strain B10/CA1) was compared with that of the parental strain in the weaned-rabbit diarrhea model. The mutant was totally deprived of virulence, although it colonized the intestine as efficiently as the parental strain did. This study points to a new pathogenic trait of EPEC strains, which is associated with the LEE locus and, possibly, with in vivo virulence
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