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2011 German Escherichia coli O104:H4 outbreak: whole-genome phylogeny without alignment

Man-Kit Cheung, Lei Li, Wenyan Nong and Hoi-Shan Kwan*

Author Affiliations

School of Life Sciences, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, New Territories, Hong Kong SAR, China

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BMC Research Notes 2011, 4:533  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-4-533

Published: 13 December 2011



A large-scale Escherichia coli O104:H4 outbreak occurred in Germany from May to July 2011, causing numerous cases of hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS) and deaths. Genomes of ten outbreak isolates and a historical O104:H4 strain isolated in 2001 were sequenced using different new generation sequencing platforms. Phylogenetic analyses were performed using various approaches which either are not genome-wide or may be subject to errors due to poor sequence alignment. Also, detailed pathogenicity analyses on the 2001 strain were not available.


We reconstructed the phylogeny of E. coli using the genome-wide and alignment-free feature frequency profile method and revealed the 2001 strain to be the closest relative to the 2011 outbreak strain among all available E. coli strains at present and confirmed findings from previous alignment-based phylogenetic studies that the HUS-causing O104:H4 strains are more closely related to typical enteroaggregative E. coli (EAEC) than to enterohemorrhagic E. coli. Detailed re-examination of pathogenicity-related virulence factors and secreted proteins showed that the 2001 strain possesses virulence factors shared between typical EAEC and the 2011 outbreak strain.


Our study represents the first attempt to elucidate the whole-genome phylogeny of the 2011 German outbreak using an alignment-free method, and suggested a direct line of ancestry leading from a putative EAEC-like ancestor through the 2001 strain to the 2011 outbreak strain.