Selection for phage resistance reduces virulence of Shigella flexneri

Applied and Environmental Microbiology
Year of Publication: 
Kortright KE, Done RE, Chan BK, Souza V, Turner PE
There is an increasing interest in phage therapy as an alternative to antibiotics for treating bacterial infections, especially using phages that select for evolutionary trade-offs between increased phage resistance and decreased fitness traits, such as virulence, in target bacteria. A vast repertoire of virulence factors allows the opportunistic bacterial pathogen Shigella flexneri to invade human gut epithelial cells, replicate intracellularly, and evade host immunity through intercellular spread. It has been previously shown that OmpA is necessary for the intercellular spread of S. flexneri. We hypothesized that a phage which uses OmpA as a receptor to infect S. flexneri should select for phage-resistant mutants with attenuated intercellular spread. Here, we show that phage A1-1 requires OmpA as a receptor and selects for reduced virulence in S. flexneri. We characterized five phage-resistant mutants by measuring phenotypic changes in various traits: cell-membrane permeability, total lipopolysaccharide (LPS), sensitivity to antibiotics, and susceptibility to other phages. The results separated the mutants into two groups: R1 and R2 phenotypically resembled ompA knockouts, whereas R3, R4, and R5 were similar to LPS-deficient strains. Whole-genome sequencing confirmed that R1 and R2 had mutations in ompA, while R3, R4, and R5 had mutations in the LPS inner-core biosynthesis genes gmhA and gmhC. Bacterial plaque assays confirmed that all the phage-resistant mutants were incapable of intercellular spread. We concluded that selection for S. flexneri resistance to phage A1-1 generally reduced virulence (i.e., intercellular spread), but this trade-off could be mediated by mutations either in ompA or in LPS-core genes that likely altered OmpA conformation.