Background: Microbiological studies frequently involve exchanges of strains between laboratories and/or stock centers. The integrity of exchanged strains is vital for archival reasons and to ensure reproducible experimental results. For at least 50 years, one of the most common means of shipping bacteria was by inoculating bacterial samples in agar stabs. Long-term cultures in stabs exhibit genetic instabilities and one common instability is in rpoS. The sigma factor RpoS accumulates in response to several stresses and in the stationary phase. One consequence of RpoS accumulation is the competition with the vegetative sigma factor σ70. Under nutrient limiting conditions mutations in rpoS or in genes that regulate its expression tend to accumulate. Here, we investigate whether short-term storage and mailing of cultures in stabs results in genetic heterogeneity.
Results: We found that samples of the E. coli K-12 strain MC4100TF exchanged on three separate occasions by mail between our laboratories became heterogeneous. Reconstruction studies indicated that LB-stabs exhibited mutations previously found in GASP studies in stationary phase LB broth. At least 40% of reconstructed stocks and an equivalent proportion of actually mailed stock contained these mutations. Mutants with low RpoS levels emerged within 7 days of incubation in the stabs. Sequence analysis of ten of these segregants revealed that they harboured each of three different rpoS mutations. These mutants displayed the classical phenotypes of bacteria lacking rpoS. The genetic stability of MC4100TF was also tested in filter disks embedded in glycerol. Under these conditions, GASP mutants emerge only after a 3-week period. We also confirm that the intrinsic high RpoS level in MC4100TF is mainly due to the presence of an IS1 insertion in rssB.
Conclusions: Given that many E. coli strains contain high RpoS levels similar to MC4100TF, the integrity of such strains during transfers and storage is questionable. Variations in important collections may be due to storage-transfer related issues. These results raise important questions on the integrity of bacterial archives and transferred strains, explain variation like in the ECOR collection between laboratories and indicate a need for the development of better methods of strain transfer.