eLife digest | A long-term epigenetic memory switch controls bacterial virulence bimodality

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A long-term epigenetic memory switch controls bacterial virulence bimodality

eLife digest

Affiliation details

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

Bacteria typically cope with harsh and changing environments by activating specific genes or accumulating those mutations that change genes in a beneficial way. Recently, it was also shown that the levels of gene activity can vary between otherwise identical bacteria in a single population. This provides an alternative strategy to deal with stressful conditions because it generates sub-groups of bacteria that potentially already adapted to different environments. Bacteria that enter the human body face many challenges, and this kind of pre-adaptation could help them to invade humans and overcome the immune system. However, this hypothesis had not previously been tested in a bacterium called enteropathogenic E.coli, which infects the intestines and is responsible for the deaths of many infants worldwide.

Ronin et al. show that cells in enteropathogenic E.coli colonies spontaneously form into two groups when exposed to conditions that mimic the environment inside the human body. Once triggered, one of these groups is particularly dangerous and this “hypervirulent” state is remembered for an extremely long time meaning that the bacteria remain hypervirulent for many generations. In addition, Ronin et al. identified the specific genes that control the switch to the hypervirulent state.

These findings have uncovered the existence of groups of enteropathogenic E.coli that are pre-adapted to invading human hosts. Finding out more about how the switching mechanism works and its relevance in other bacteria may help researchers to develop new therapies that can help fight bacterial infections.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.19599.002