The capacity of STEC Escherichia coli to Colonize, Grow, and Be Internalized in Plants
Contamination of fresh produce with pathogenic Escherichia coli, including Shiga-toxigenic E. coli (STEC), represents a serious risk to human health. Colonization is governed by multiple bacterial and plant factors that can impact the probability and suitability of bacterial growth. Thus, we aimed to determine whether the growth potential of STEC for plants associated with foodborne outbreaks (two leafy vegetables and two sprouted seed species) is predictive of the colonization of living plants, as assessed from growth kinetics and biofilm formation in plant extracts. The fitness of STEC isolates was compared to that of environmental E. coli isolates at temperatures relevant to plant growth. Growth kinetics in plant extracts varied in a plant-dependent and isolate-dependent manner for all isolates, with spinach leaf lysates supporting the highest rates of growth. Spinach extracts also supported the highest levels of biofilm formation. Saccharides were identified to be the major driver of bacterial growth, although no single metabolite could be correlated with growth kinetics. The highest level of in planta colonization occurred on alfalfa sprouts, though internalization was 10 times more prevalent in the leafy vegetables than in sprouted seeds. Marked differences in in planta growth meant that the growth potential of STEC could be inferred only for sprouted seeds. In contrast, biofilm formation in extracts related to spinach colonization. Overall, the capacity of E. coli to colonize, grow, and be internalized within plants or plant-derived matrices was influenced by the isolate type, plant species, plant tissue type, and temperature, complicating any straightforward relationship between in vitro and in planta behaviors.
IMPORTANCE Fresh produce is an important vehicle for STEC transmission, and experimental evidence shows that STEC can colonize plants as secondary hosts, but differences in the capacity to colonize occur between different plant species and tissues. Therefore, an understanding of the impact that these plant factors have on the ability of STEC to grow and establish is required for food safety considerations and risk assessment. Here, we determined whether growth and the ability of STEC to form biofilms in plant extracts could be related to specific plant metabolites or could predict the ability of the bacteria to colonize living plants. Growth rates for sprouted seeds (alfalfa and fenugreek) but not those for leafy vegetables (lettuce and spinach) exhibited a positive relationship between plant extracts and living plants. Therefore, the detailed variations at the level of the bacterial isolate, plant species, and tissue type all need to be considered in risk assessment.