The Univeristy of Melbourne The Royal Melbourne Hopspital

A joint venture between The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital


Characterisation of typical enteropathogenic Escherichia coli (tEPEC) lineages and novel bfpA variants detected in Australian fruit bats (Pteropus poliocephalus)


  • McDougall, Fiona
  • Gordon, David
  • Robins-Browne, Roy
  • Bennett-Wood, Vicki
  • Boardman, Wayne S.J.
  • Graham, Petra L.
  • Power, Michelle


Science of The Total Environment, Volume 902, 2023-12-01

Article Link: Click here

Enteropathogenic Escherichia coli (EPEC) is an important cause of diarrhoeal disease in human infants. EPEC strains are defined by the presence of specific virulence factors including intimin (encoded by the eae gene) and bundle forming pili (Bfp). Bfp is encoded by the bfp operon and includes the bfpA gene for the major pilus subunit. By definition, Bfp are only present in typical EPEC (tEPEC), for which, humans are considered to be the only known natural host. This study detected tEPEC in faecal samples from a wild Australian fruit bat species, the grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus). Whole genome sequencing of 61 E. coli isolates from flying-foxes revealed that 21.3 % (95%CI: 13 %–33 %) were tEPEC. Phylogenetic analyses showed flying-fox tEPEC shared evolutionary lineages with human EPEC, but were predominantly novel sequence types (9 of 13) and typically harboured novel bfpA variants (11 of 13). HEp-2 cell adhesion assays showed adherence to human-derived epithelial cells by all 13 flying-fox tEPEC, indicating that they all carried functional Bfp. Using an EPEC-specific duplex PCR, it was determined that tEPEC comprised 17.4 % (95%CI: 13 %–22 %) of 270 flying-fox E. coli isolates. Furthermore, a tEPEC-specific multiplex PCR detected the eae and bfpA virulence genes in 18.0 % (95%CI: 8.0 %–33.7 %) of 506 flying-fox faecal DNA samples, with occurrences ranging from 1.3 % to 87.0 % across five geographic areas sampled over a four-year period. The identification of six novel tEPEC sequence types and five novel bfpA variants suggests flying-foxes carry bat-specific tEPEC lineages. However, their close relationship with human EPEC and functional Bfp, indicates that flying-fox tEPEC have zoonotic potential and that dissemination of flying-fox tEPEC into urban environments may pose a public health risk. The consistent detection of tEPEC in flying-foxes over extensive geographical and temporal scales indicates that both wild grey-headed flying-foxes and humans should be regarded as natural tEPEC hosts.