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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Common origin of plasmid encoded alpha-hemolysin genes in Escherichia coli

Ylanna Burgos and Lothar Beutin*

Author Affiliations

National Reference Laboratory for E. coli, Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), D12277 Berlin, Germany

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BMC Microbiology 2010, 10:193  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-10-193

Published: 19 July 2010



Alpha (α)-hemolysin is a pore forming cytolysin and serves as a virulence factor in intestinal and extraintestinal pathogenic strains of E. coli. It was suggested that the genes encoding α-hemolysin (hlyCABD) which can be found on the chromosome and plasmid, were acquired through horizontal gene transfer. Plasmid-encoded α-hly is associated with certain enterotoxigenic (ETEC), shigatoxigenic (STEC) and enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC) strains. In uropathogenic E. coli (UPEC), the α-hly genes are located on chromosomal pathogenicity islands. Previous work suggested that plasmid and chromosomally encoded α-hly may have evolved independently. This was explored in our study.


We have investigated 11 α-hly plasmids from animal and human ETEC, STEC and EPEC strains. The size of α-hly plasmids ranges from 48-157 kb and eight plasmids are conjugative. The regulatory gene (hlyR) located upstream of the hlyCABD gene operon and an IS911 element located downstream of hlyD are conserved. Chromosomally-encoded α-hly operons lack the hlyR and IS911 elements. The DNA sequence of hlyC and hlyA divided the plasmid- and chromosomally-encoded α-hemolysins into two clusters. The plasmid-encoded α-hly genes could be further divided into three groups based on the insertion of IS1 and IS2 in the regulatory region upstream of the α-hly operon. Transcription of the hlyA gene was higher than the housekeeping icdA gene in all strains (rq 4.8 to 143.2). Nucleotide sequence analysis of a chromosomally located α-hly determinant in Enterobacter cloacae strain indicates that it originates from an E. coli α-hly plasmid.


Our data indicate that plasmids encoding α-hly in E. coli descended from a common ancestor independent of the plasmid size and the origin of the strains. Conjugative plasmids could contribute to the spread of the α-hly determinant to Enterobacter cloacae. The presence of IS-elements flanking the plasmid-encoded α-hly indicate that they might be mobile genetic elements.