E. coli are not always confined to the intestine, and their ability to survive for brief periods outside the body makes them an ideal indicator organism to test environmental samples for fecal contamination. The bacteria can also be grown easily and its genetics are comparatively simple and easily-manipulated, making it one of the best-studied prokaryotic model organisms, and an important species in biotechnology. E. coli was discovered by German pediatrician and bacteriologist Theodor Escherich in 1885, and is now classified as part of the Enterobacteriaceae family of gamma-proteobacteria.
A strain of E. coli is a sub-group within the species that has unique characteristics that distinguish it from other E. coli strains. These differences are often detectable only on the molecular level; however, they may result in changes to the physiology or lifecycle of the bacterium. For example, a strain may gain pathogenic capacity, the ability to use a unique carbon source, the ability to inhabit a particular ecological niche or the ability to resist antimicrobial agents. Different strains of E. coli are often host-specific, making it possible to determine the source of fecal contamination in environmental samples. Depending on which E. coli strains are present in a water sample, for example, assumptions can be made about whether the contamination originated from a human, other mammal or bird source.
New strains of E. coli evolve through the natural biological process of mutation, and some strains develop traits that can be harmful to a host animal. Although virulent strains typically cause no more than a bout of diarrhea in healthy adult humans, particularly virulent strains, such as H7 or , can cause serious illness or death in the elderly, the very young or the immunocompromised.
E. coli is Gram-negative, facultative anaerobic and non-sporulating. The cells are about 2 micrometres (μm) long and 0.5 μm in diameter, with a cell volume of 0.6 - 0.7 μm3. It can live on a wide variety of substrates. E. coli uses mixed-acid fermentation in anaerobic conditions, producing lactate, succinate, ethanol, acetate and carbon dioxide. Since many pathways in mixed-acid fermentation produce hydrogen gas, these pathways require the levels of hydrogen to be low, as is the case when E. coli lives together with hydrogen-consuming organisms such as methanogens or sulfate-reducing bacteria.
Optimal growth of E. coli occurs at 37°C, but some laboratory strains can multiply at temperatures of up to 49°C. Growth can be driven by aerobic or anaerobic respiration, using a large variety of redox pairs, including the oxidation of pyruvic acid, formic acid, hydrogen and amino acids, and the reduction of substrates such as oxygen, nitrate, dimethyl sulfoxide and trimethylamine N-oxide.
E. coli and related bacteria possess the ability to transfer DNA via bacterial conjugation, transduction or transformation, which allows genetic material to spread horizontally through an existing population. This process led to the spread of the gene encoding shiga toxin from Shigella to E. coli O157:H7, carried by a bacteriophage.
Virulent strains of E. coli can cause gastroenteritis, urinary tract infections, and neonatal meningitis. In rarer cases, virulent strains are also responsible for hæmolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), peritonitis, mastitis, septicemia and Gram-negative pneumonia.. Recently it is thought that E. coli and certain other foodborne illnesses can sometimes trigger serious health problems months or years after patients survived that initial bout.
Certain strains of E. coli, such as H7, O121 and H21, produce toxins. Food poisoning caused by E. coli are usually associated with eating unwashed vegetables and meat contaminated post-slaughter. O157:H7 is further notorious for causing serious and even life-threatening complications like hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). This particular strain is linked to the 2006 United States E. coli outbreak of fresh spinach. Severity of the illness varies considerably; it can be fatal, particularly to young children, the elderly or the immunocompromised, but is more often mild. E. coli can harbor both heat-stable and heat-labile enterotoxins. The latter, termed LT, contains one 'A' subunit and five 'B' subunits arranged into one holotoxin, and is highly similar in structure and function to Cholera toxins. The B subunits assist in adherence and entry of the toxin into host intestinal cells, while the A subunit is cleaved and prevents cells from absorbing water, causing diarrhea. LT is secreted by the Type 2 secretion pathway.
If E. coli bacteria escape the intestinal tract through a perforation (for example from an ulcer, a ruptured appendix, or a surgical error) and enter the abdomen, they usually cause peritonitis that can be fatal without prompt treatment. However, E. coli are extremely sensitive to such antibiotics as streptomycin or gentamicin. This could change since, as noted below, E. coli quickly acquires drug resistance.. Recent research suggests that treatment with antibiotics does not improve the outcome of the disease, and may in fact significantly increase the chance of developing haemolytic uraemic syndrome.
Intestinal mucosa-associated E. coli are observed in increased numbers in the inflammatory bowel diseases, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Invasive strains of E. coli exist in high numbers in the inflamed tissue, and the number of bacteria in the inflamed regions correlates to the severity of the bowel inflammation.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the fecal-oral cycle of transmission can be disrupted by cooking food properly, preventing cross-contamination, instituting barriers such as gloves for food workers, instituting health care policies so food industry employees seek treatment when they are ill, pasteurization of juice or dairy products and proper hand washing requirements.
Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), specifically serotype O157:H7, have also been transmitted by flies, as well as direct contact with farm animals, petting zoo animals, and airborne particles found in animal-rearing environments.
Uropathogenic E. coli utilize P fimbriae (pyelonephritis-associated pili) to bind urinary tract endothelial cells and colonize the bladder. These adhesins specifically bind D-galactose-D-galactose moieties on the P blood group antigen of erythrocytes and uroepithelial cells. Approximately 1% of the human population lacks this receptor, and its presence or absence dictates an individual's susceptibility to E. coli urinary tract infections. Uropathogenic E. coli produce alpha- and beta-hemolysins, which cause lysis of urinary tract cells.
UPEC can evade the body's innate immune defenses (e.g. the complement system) by invading superficial umbrella cells to form intracellular bacterial communities (IBCs). They also have the ability to form K antigen, capsular polysaccharides that contribute to biofilm formation. Biofilm-producing E. coli are recalcitrant to immune factors and antibiotic therapy and are often responsible for chronic urinary tract infections. K antigen-producing E. coli infections are commonly found in the upper urinary tract.
In stool samples microscopy will show Gram negative rods, with no particular cell arrangement. Then, either MacConkey agar or EMB agar (or both) are inoculated with the stool. On MacConkey agar, deep red colonies are produced as the organism is lactose positive, and fermentation of this sugar will cause the medium's pH to drop, leading to darkening of the medium. Growth on Levine EMB agar produces black colonies with greenish-black metallic sheen. This is diagnosic of E. coli. The organism is also lysine positive, and grows on TSI slant with a (A/A/g+/H2S-) profile. Also, IMViC is ++-- for E. coli; as it's indol positive (red ring) and methyl red positive (bright red), but VP negative (no change-colorless) and citrate negative (no change-green color). Tests for toxin production can use mammalian cells in tissue culture, which are rapidly killed by shiga toxin. Although sensitive and very specific, this method is slow and expensive.
Typically diagnosis has been done by culturing on sorbitol-MacConkey medium and then using typing antiserum. However, current latex assays and some typing antiserum have shown cross reactions with non-E. coli O157 colonies. Furthermore, not all E. coli O157 strains associated with HUS are nonsorbitol fermentors.
The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists recommend that clinical laboratories screen at least all bloody stools for this pathogen. The American Gastroenterological Association Foundation (AGAF) recommended in July 1994 that all stool specimens should be routinely tested for E. coli O157:H7.15 It is recommended that the clinician check with their state health department or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine which specimens should be tested and whether the results are reportable.
Other methods for detecting E. coli O157 in stool include ELISA tests, colony immunoblots, direct immunofluorescence microscopy of filters, as well as immunocapture techniques using magnetic beads. These assays are designed as screening tool to allow rapid testing for the presence of E. coli O157 without prior culturing of the stool specimen.
Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem. Some of this is due to overuse of antibiotics in humans, but some of it is probably due to the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in food of animals. A study published in the journal Science in August 2007 found that the rate of adaptative mutations in E. coli is "on the order of 10–5 per genome per generation, which is 1,000 times as high as previous estimates," a finding which may have significance for the study and management of bacterial antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic-resistant E. coli may also pass on the genes responsible for antibiotic resistance to other species of bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus. E. coli often carry multidrug resistant plasmids and under stress readily transfer those plasmids to other species. Indeed, E. coli is a frequent member of biofilms, where many species of bacteria exist in close proximity to each other. This mixing of species allows E. coli strains that are piliated to accept and transfer plasmids from and to other bacteria. Thus E. coli and the other enterobacteria are important reservoirs of transferable antibiotic resistance.
Increased concern about the prevalence of this form of "superbug" in the United Kingdom has led to calls for further monitoring and a UK-wide strategy to deal with infections and the deaths. Susceptibility testing should guide treatment in all infections in which the organism can be isolated for culture.
In 2006 Fort Dodge Animal Health (Wyeth) introduced an effective live attenuated vaccine to control airsacculitis and peritonitis in chickens. The vaccine is a genetically modified avirulent vaccine that has demonstrated protection against O78 and untypeable strains.
In January 2007 the Canadian bio-pharmaceutical company Bioniche announced it has developed a cattle vaccine which reduces the number of O157:H7 shed in manure by a factor of 1000, to about 1000 pathogenic bacteria per gram of manure.
Considered a very versatile host for the production of heterologous proteins, researchers can introduce genes into the microbes using plasmids, allowing for the mass production of proteins in industrial fermentation processes. Genetic systems have also been developed which allow the production of recombinant proteins using E. coli. One of the first useful applications of recombinant DNA technology was the manipulation of E. coli to produce human insulin. Modified E. coli have been used in vaccine development, bioremediation, and production of immobilised enzymes. E. coli cannot, however, be used to produce some of the more large, complex proteins which contain multiple disulfide bonds and, in particular, unpaired thiols, or proteins that also require post-translational modification for activity.
In 1946, Joshua Lederberg and Edward Tatum first described the phenomenon known as bacterial conjugation using E. coli as a model bacterium, and it remains the primary model to study conjugation. E. coli was an integral part of the first experiments to understand phage genetics, and early researchers, such as Seymour Benzer, used E. coli and phage T4 to understand the topography of gene structure. Prior to Benzer's research, it was not known whether the gene was a linear structure, or if it had a branching pattern.
Long-term evolution experiments using E. coli have allowed direct observation of major evolutionary shifts in the laboratory.