Skip to main content
ARS Home » Pacific West Area » Albany, California » Western Regional Research Center » Produce Safety and Microbiology Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #366015

Research Project: Ecology and Detection of Human Pathogens in the Produce Production Continuum

Location: Produce Safety and Microbiology Research

Title: Formation of E. coli O157:H7 persister cells in the lettuce phyllosphere and application of differential equation models to predict their prevalence on lettuce plants in the field

Author
item MUNTHER, DANIEL - Cleveland State University
item Carter, Michelle
item ALDRIC, CLAUDE - Cleveland State University
item IVANEK, RENANTA - Cornell University - New York
item Brandl, Maria

Submitted to: Applied and Environmental Microbiology
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 11/6/2019
Publication Date: 1/7/2020
Citation: Munther, D.S., Carter, M.Q., Aldric, C.V., Ivanek, R., Brandl, M. 2020. Formation of E. coli O157:H7 persister cells in the lettuce phyllosphere and application of differential equation models to predict their prevalence on lettuce plants in the field. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 86(2):e01602-19. https://doi.org/10.1128/AEM.01602-19.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1128/AEM.01602-19

Interpretive Summary: Despite causing outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to lettuce consumption, E. coli O157:H7 (EcO157) declines rapidly when applied onto plants in the field and few cells survive over prolonged periods of time. We hypothesized that these cells are persisters, which are in a dormant state and arise naturally in bacterial populations. When lettuce plants were inoculated with EcO157 in the laboratory, the greatest persister fraction in the population was observed during population decline on dry leaf surfaces. Using mathematical modeling, we calculated the switch rate from EcO157 normal to persister cell on dry lettuce plants based on our laboratory data. The model was applied to published studies in which lettuce was inoculated with EcO157 in the field, and similar switch rates as those in our study were obtained. Our results contribute important new knowledge on the physiology of this virulent pathogen on plants to be considered to enhance produce safety.

Technical Abstract: E. coli O157:H7 (EcO157) infections have been recurrently associated with produce. The physiological state of EcO157 cells surviving the many stresses encountered on plants is poorly understood. EcO157 populations on plants in the field generally follows a bi-phasic decay in which small subpopulations survive over longer periods of time. We hypothesized that these subpopulations include persister cells, known as dormant cells arising through phenotypic variation in a clonal population. Using three experimental regimes (growing, stationary at carrying capacity, and decaying populations), we measured persister cell fractions in culturable EcO157 populations after inoculation onto lettuce plants in the laboratory. The greatest average persister cell fraction on the leaves within each regime was 0.015, 0.095, and 0.221%, respectively. The declining EcO157 populations on plants incubated under dry conditions showed the largest increase in the persister fraction (46.9-fold). Differential equation models were built to describe the average temporal dynamics of EcO157 normal and persister cell populations after inoculation onto plants maintained under low RH, resulting in switch rates from normal cell to persister cell of 7.7x10-6–2.8x10-5 h-1. Applying our model equations from the decay regime, we estimated model parameters for four published field trials on EcO157 survival on lettuce and obtained similar switch rates as in our study. Hence, our model has relevance to the survival of this human pathogen on lettuce plants in the field. Given the low metabolic state of persister cells, which may protect them from sanitization treatments, these cells are important to consider in microbial decontamination of produce.