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Open Access Research article

SspA up-regulates gene expression of the LEE pathogenicity island by decreasing H-NS levels in enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli

Anne-Marie Hansen12 and Ding Jun Jin1*

Author affiliations

1 Transcription Control Section, Gene Regulation and Chromosome Biology Laboratory, Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Frederick, MD 21702, USA

2 Present Address: Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, 21201, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Microbiology 2012, 12:231  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-12-231

Published: 11 October 2012



Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) colonizes the intestinal epithelium and causes attaching and effacing (A/E) lesions. Expression of virulence genes, particularly those from the locus of the enterocyte effacement (LEE) pathogenicity island is required for the formation of a type three secretion system, which induces A/E lesion formation. Like other horizontally acquired genetic elements, expression of the LEE is negatively regulated by H-NS. In the non-pathogenic Escherichia coli K-12 strain the stringent starvation protein A (SspA) inhibits accumulation of H-NS, and thereby allows de-repression of the H-NS regulon during the stationary phase of growth. However, the effect of SspA on the expression of H-NS-controlled virulence genes in EHEC is unknown.


Here we assess the effect of SspA on virulence gene expression in EHEC. We show that transcription of virulence genes including those of the LEE is decreased in an sspA mutant, rendering the mutant strain defective in forming A/E lesions. A surface exposed pocket of SspA is functionally important for the regulation of the LEE and for the A/E phenotype. Increased expression of ler alleviates LEE expression in an sspA mutant, suggesting that the level of Ler in the mutant is insufficient to counteract H-NS-mediated repression. We demonstrate that the H-NS level is two-fold higher in an sspA mutant compared to wild type, and that the defects of the sspA mutant are suppressed by an hns null mutation, indicating that hns is epistatic to sspA in regulating H-NS repressed virulence genes.


SspA positively regulates the expression of EHEC virulence factors by restricting the intracellular level of H-NS. Since SspA is conserved in many bacterial pathogens containing horizontally acquired pathogenicity islands controlled by H-NS, our study suggests a common mechanism whereby SspA potentially regulates the expression of virulence genes in these pathogens.

Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli; LEE; SspA; H-NS