Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) is a foodborne pathogen responsible for human diarrheal disease. EHEC lives in the intestinal tract of cattle and other farm and wild animals, which may be the source of environmental contamination particularly of agricultural fields. Human infections are associated with consumption of tainted animal products and fresh produce. How the bacteria interact with the plant phyllosphere and withstand industrial decontamination remain to be elucidated. The goals of the present study were to investigate the environmental conditions and surface structures that influence the interaction of EHEC O157:H7 with baby spinach and lettuce leaves in vitro. Independently of the production of Shiga toxin, EHEC O157:H7 colonizes the leaf surface via flagella and the type 3 secretion system (T3SS). Ultrastructural analysis of EHEC-infected leafy greens revealed the presence of flagellated bacteria, and mutation of the fliC flagellin gene in EHEC EDL933 rendered the bacteria significantly less adherent, suggesting the involvement of flagella in the bacteria-leaf interaction. EDL933 mutated in the escN (ATPase) gene associated with the function of the T3SS but not in the eae (intimin adhesin) gene required for adherence to host intestinal cells had significantly reduced adherence compared with that of the parental strain. The data suggest a compelling role of flagella and the T3SS in colonization of leafy green produce. Colonization of salad leaves by EHEC strains may be a strategy that ensures survival of these bacteria in the environment and allows transmission to the human host.

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