For reasons unknown, certain Escherichia coli strains become highly virulent when injected with hemoglobin or other soluble iron sources. Two clinical isolates (virulent and nonvirulent) showed equivalent hemoglobin-mediated growth acceleration in vitro. However, when injected intraperitoneally into mice without hemoglobin, the virulent strain was cleared more slowly (t1/2, >4 h vs. <30 min). The virulent E. coli strain had a polysialic acid-containing capsule, whereas the nonvirulent strain did not. Virulent E. coli grown at 20°C (which blocks polysialylation) were cleared as rapidly as nonvirulent organisms. In another virulent E. coli strain having abundant outer membrane polysialic acid, targeted deletion of the polysialyltransferase accelerated host clearance and blocked iron-dependent virulence. The iron-dependent virulence of certain E. coli strains may represent the combined effect of slow in vivo clearance - associated, in this case, with outer membrane polysialylation coupled with accelerated growth permitted by iron compounds.
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