Neuropathogenic Escherichia coli K1 does not exhibit proteolytic activities to exert its pathogenicity

Document Type



Biological and Biomedical Sciences



Proteases are well-known virulence factors that promote survival, pathogenesis and immune evasion of many pathogens. Several lines of evidence suggest that the blood–brain barrier permeability is a prerequisite in microbial invasion of the central nervous system. Because proteases are frequently associated with vascular permeability by targeting junctional proteins, here it is hypothesized that neuropathogenic Escherichia coli K1 exhibit proteolytic activities to exert its pathogenicity.


Zymographic assays were performed using collagen and gelatin as substrates. The lysates of whole E. coli K1 strain E44, or E. coli K-12 strain HB101 were tested for proteolytic activities. The conditioned media were prepared by incubating bacteria in RPMI-1640 in the presence or absence of serum. The cell-free supernatants were collected and tested for proteases in zymography as mentioned above. Additionally, proteolytic degradation of host immune factors was determined by co-incubating conditioned media with albumin/immunoglobulins using protease assays.


When collagen or gelatin were used as substrates in zymographic assays, neither whole bacteria nor conditioned media exhibited proteolytic activities. The conditioned media of neuropathogenic E. coli K1 strain E44, or E. coli K-12 strain HB101 did not affect degradation of albumin and immunoglobulins using protease assays.


Neither zymographic assays nor protease assays detected proteolytic activities in either the whole bacteria or conditioned media of E. coli K1 strain E44 and E. coli K-12 strain HB101. These findings suggest that host cell monolayer disruptions and immune evasion strategies are likely independent of proteolytic activities of neuropathogenic E. coli K1. Keywords: E. coli K1, Protease, Collagen, Gelatin, Zymography, BSA and IgG


Proteases hydrolyze peptide bonds of amino acids residues in a polypeptide chain [1]. Given the presence of active residues in their catalytic sites, proteases are classified into six different types including, aspartic-, cysteine-, glumatic-, serine-, threonine- and metallo-proteases, among which serine- and metallo-proteases are most abundant in nature [1]. Besides their physiological role, many proteases are involved in pathogenesis of infectious and non infectious diseases. Among bacterial infections, two remarkable examples of proteases include lethal factor of anthrax toxin and botulinum neurotoxin produced by Bacillus anthracis and Clostridium botulinum, respectively [2,3]. The lethal factor of anthrax toxin is responsible for degradation and inactivation of host cell mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase (MAP2K) [3], whereas Clostridium botulinium produces a powerful neurotoxin protease that impedes acetylcholine release at peripheral nerve ending by cleaving the SNAP-25 protein. SNAP-25 is involved in vesicle fusion and facilitate acetylcholine release from axon endings into the synaptic cleft [2]. Besides the above mentioned bacterial proteases, conserved Lon, Clp, and HtrA bacterial proteases are also believed to be involved in the virulence of different Gram positive and negative bacteria [4]. Lon and Clp proteases are involved in the regulation of type III secretion system that is responsible for delivering different toxin and virulence factors to host cells. Whereas HtrA, in addition to its protease activity, also has chaperone activity which is involved in the localization and export of different virulence factors from different bacterial pathogens [4].

E. coli K1 is a leading cause of infant meningitis and sepsis in both developed and developing world. These infections have high mortality rates of 40-50% and affect 5–50 infants among 100,000 live births and estimated to be responsible for ~50,000 deaths worldwide per year [5-8]. One reason for such high mortality rate is inadequate understanding of pathogenesis and the pathogen itself. A number of virulence factors including cytotoxic necrotizing factor 1 (CNF1), FimH, outer membrane protein A (OmpA), Ibe proteins, TraJ, and As1A have been identified [9], but the role of proteases in E. coli K1 pathogenesis have not been studied. Given that proteases are frequently associated with vascular permeability [1,10], here it is hypothesized that the neuropathogenic E. coli K1 exhibit proteolytic activities to exert its pathogenicity.

Materials and methods

E. coli K1 strain E44, a spontaneous rifampin-resistant mutant of a cerebrospinal fluid isolate of K1-encapsulated E. coli RS218 (O18:K1:H7) [11] was used as an invasive isolate, while E. coli K-12 strain HB101 was used a non-invasive laboratory isolate in the present study. For routine culturing, both bacteria were grown in Luria–Bertani (LB) broth overnight. For zymographic assays, bacteria were grown overnight with shaking under aerobic condition at 37°C in RPMI 1640. Next day the optical density was adjusted to 0.22 for E44 and 0.35 for HB101 using 595 nm wavelength yielding approximately 1 × 108 per mL bacterial colony forming units (c.f.u.). To determine proteolytic activities, whole cell lysates were prepared by incubating various bacterial counts in 2× SDS sample buffer without beta-mercaptoethanol and kept unboiled for 30 min at room temperature, followed by vortexing. Finally, bacterial lysates were tested for proteases in zymography. For positive controls, Acanthamoeba castellanii lysates were prepared. Briefly, amoebae (104 parasites in 10 μL) were incubated in lysis buffer as above and tested for proteolytic activities in substrate zymography.

To determine the presence of extracellular proteolytic activities, E. coli conditioned media were prepared. To produce conditioned media, E. coli K1 and K12 were grown overnight with shaking under aerobic condition at 37°C in RPMI 1640 with or without 10% serum fetal calf serum. The cell-free conditioned media was removed by centrifugation at 10,000 × g for 2 min and 10 μl of these were loaded along with uninoculated medium on SDS-PAGE gels containing gelatin and collagen as substrates described below.

For zymographic assays, whole cell bacterial lysates or their conditioned media were mixed (1:1) with sample buffer (containing 4% sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS) but without β-mercaptoethanol) and electrophoresed on 7.5% SDS-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE) containing gelatin (obtained from bovine skin, Sigma-Aldrich; 1 mg/mL final conc.) or collagen I (obtained from rat tail, Sigma-Aldrich; 1 mg/mL final conc.). After electrophoresis, gels were soaked in 2.5% Triton X-100 (w/v) solution for 120 min to remove SDS. Finally, the gels were incubated in a developing buffer (50 mM Tris–HCl, pH 7.5, containing 5 mM CaCl2, 100 mM NaCl, 0.5 mM MgCl2, and 0.002 mM ZnCl2) at 37°C overnight, rinsed, and stained with Coomassie brilliant blue. Areas of gelatin digestion were visualized as non-staining regions in the gel. To determine the effects of various pH on E. coli proteolytic activity, cell-free E. coli K1 conditioned medium was electrophoresed, and gels were incubated overnight in pH 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 (0.1 M citrate buffer was used to adjust pH 3, 4, and 5; 0.1 M phosphate buffer was used for pH 6, 7 and 8; and 0.2 M glycine buffer was used for pH 9 and 10). Following this incubation, gels were stained with Coomassie brilliant Blue. The results are representative of three independent experiments.

For protease assays, E. coli conditioned media (10 μL) were incubated with 2 μg of bovine serum albumin (BSA) and rabbit IgG (rIgG) in a final volume of 20 μL in incubation buffer (50 mM Tris-Cl pH 8.0, 100 mM NaCl, 5 mM CaCl2, 500 μM MgCl2 and 2 μM ZnCl2) in 0.5 mL eppendorf tubes. Tubes were incubated for 18 h at 37°C. The BSA and rIgG in the absence of conditioned media were used as negative controls, while A. castellanii conditioned media (known to produce proteases) [12], were used as positive controls. Following this incubation, samples were mixed with equal volume of 2× SDS loading buffer, boiled and loaded onto 12% SDS-PAGE gel to determine BSA/rIgG degradation. After electrophoresis gels were stained with Coomassie Brilliant Blue and visualized. The results are representative of three independent experiments.

Results and discussion

To determine the proteolytic activities of E. coli whole cells lysates or their conditioned media, zymographic assays were performed. The lysates of A. castellanii (positive control) exhibited gelatin degradation (Figure 1A); however, neither E. coli K1 strain E44 lysates nor E. coli K-12 strain HB101 tested, showed gelatin degradation in zymographic assays (Figure 1A). Similarly, the conditioned medium of E. coli did not exhibit gelatin or collagen degradation in zymographic assays (Figure 1B and and1C).1C). As expected, serum alone exhibited proteolytic activities (Figure 1B and and1C).1C). The conditioned medium prepared in the presence of 10% foetal calf serum did not show any additional noticeable protease band on zymograms (Figure 1B and and1C).1C). When higher percentages zymography gels (10% and 12%) were used to detect low molecular mass protease(s), no additional protease bands on zymograms were observed (data not shown). When tested under various pH, the results revealed that E. coli K1 conditioned medium does not exhibit protease activity at any pH ranging from 3–10 (Figure 2).


Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine