The outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria presents a significant barrier for molecules entering the cell. Nevertheless, colicins, which are antimicrobial proteins secreted by Escherichia coli, can target other E. coli cells by binding to cell surface receptor proteins and activating their import, resulting in cell death. Previous studies have documented high rates of nonspecific resistance (insensitivity) of various E. coli strains toward colicins that is independent of colicin-specific immunity and is instead associated with lipopolysaccharide (LPS) in the outer membrane. This observation poses a contradiction: why do E. coli strains have colicin-expressing plasmids, which are energetically costly to retain, if cells around them are likely to be naturally insensitive to the colicin they produce? Here, using a combination of transposon sequencing and phenotypic microarrays, we show that colicin insensitivity of uropathogenic E. coli sequence type 131 (ST131) is dependent on the production of its O-antigen but that minor changes in growth conditions render the organism sensitive toward colicins. The reintroduction of O-antigen into E. coli K-12 demonstrated that it is the density of O-antigen that is the dominant factor governing colicin insensitivity. We also show, by microscopy of fluorescently labelled colicins, that growth conditions affect the degree of occlusion by O-antigen of outer membrane receptors but not the clustered organization of receptors. The result of our study demonstrate that environmental conditions play a critical role in sensitizing E. coli toward colicins and that O-antigen in LPS is central to this role. IMPORTANCE Escherichia coli infections can be a major health burden, especially with the organism becoming increasingly resistant to “last-resort” antibiotics such as carbapenems. Although colicins are potent narrow-spectrum antimicrobials with potential as future antibiotics, high levels of naturally occurring colicin insensitivity have been documented which could limit their efficacy. We identify O-antigen-dependent colicin insensitivity in a clinically relevant uropathogenic E. coli strain and show that this insensitivity can be circumvented by minor changes to growth conditions. The results of our study suggest that colicin insensitivity among E. coli organisms has been greatly overestimated, and as a consequence, colicins could in fact be effective species-specific antimicrobials targeting pathogenic E. coli such as uropathogenic E. coli (UPEC).
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- cell envelope
- enteric bacteria
- outer membrane