We have previously shown that diarrheagenic Escherichia coli (DEC) and non-DEC are prevalent in food sources and irrigation water in South Africa. Recent data suggest that an increased relative abundance of faecal Enterobacteriaceae is associated with poorer health outcomes among children in developing countries. Thus, exposure to non-DEC from environmental sources may incur adverse effects, although the mechanisms underlying these effects remain obscure. To further elucidate this phenomenon, we assayed non-DEC strains from environmental sources in South Africa for phenotypes that may be associated with intestinal dysfunction (ID). DEC strains were also used. The strains had previously been isolated from Producer Distributor Bulk Milk (PDBM), irrigated lettuce, street vendor coleslaw and irrigation water.
In-vitro assays identified; biofilm formation (n = 38), extracellular polymeric substance (EPS) formation (n = 38), cytotoxic activity (n = 10), disruption of tight junctions and induction of Interleukin 8 (IL-8) on polarized T-84 cells (n = 20). The number of strains tested for each assay differed, depending on prior molecular and phenotypic characterization that signalled potential pathogenicity in-vitro. Subsequently, all strains having data points for all analyses were used to compute Principal Component Analysis (PCA) plot curves to infer potential associations amongst test strains and a standard DEC pathogenic strain (042).
Biofilm formation on glass coverslips after strains were grown in nutrient-rich media (LB and DMEM-F12 + 0.5% D-Mannose) at 37 °C varied based on pathotype (DEC and non-DEC) and source of isolation (food, irrigation water, clinical) suggesting that pathotype and source isolation influence persistence within a defined environmental niche. Additionally, DEC isolated from irrigated lettuce had a significantly higher (p ≤ 0.05) propensity for biofilm formation in both media compared to all strains including DEC standard controls. This suggested the propensity for irrigated lettuce as a potential source of persistent pathogenic strains. Furthermore, all strains were able to form EPS suggesting the ability to form mature biofilms under conditions relevant for food processing (20–25 °C). Of the (60%, 6 out of 10) strains that showed cytotoxic activity, most (83%, 5 out of 6 strains) were non-DEC isolated from food sources many of which are consumed with minimal processing.
Mean percentage reduction in initial TEER (a measure of intestinal disruption), did not significantly differ (p = 0.05) in all test strains from that observed in the standard DEC. Additionally, IL-8 induction from strains isolated from PDBM (139 pg/mL), irrigation water (231.93 pg/mL) and irrigated lettuce (152.98 pg/mL) was significantly higher (p ≤ 0.05) than in the commensal strain aafa. PCA categorized strains based on sources of isolation showed potential for use in source tracking especially when comparing many strains from various environmental sources. We show that non-DEC strains along the food chain possess characteristics that may lead to ID. Further investigations using a larger collection of strains may provide a clearer link to these reported observations that could be associated with the high diarrheal disease burden within the country, especially among infants.