Evaluation of Escherichia Coli Isolates From Healthy Chickens to Determine Their Potential Risk to Poultry and Human Health
Extraintestinal pathogenic Escherichia coli (ExPEC) strains are important pathogens that cause diverse diseases in humans and poultry. Some E. coli isolates from chicken feces contain ExPEC-associated virulence genes, so appear potentially pathogenic; they conceivably could be transmitted to humans through handling and/or consumption of contaminated meat. However, the actual extraintestinal virulence potential of chicken-source fecal E. coli is poorly understood. Here, we assessed whether fecal E. coli isolates from healthy production chickens could cause diseases in a chicken model of avian colibacillosis and three rodent models of ExPEC-associated human infections. From 304 E. coli isolates from chicken fecal samples, 175 E. coli isolates were screened by PCR for virulence genes associated with human-source ExPEC or avian pathogenic E. coli (APEC), an ExPEC subset that causes extraintestinal infections in poultry. Selected isolates genetically identified as ExPEC and non-ExPEC isolates were assessed in vitro for virulence-associated phenotypes, and in vivo for disease-causing ability in animal models of colibacillosis, sepsis, meningitis, and urinary tract infection. Among the study isolates, 13% (40/304) were identified as ExPEC; the majority of these were classified as APEC and uropathogenic E. coli, but none as neonatal meningitis E. coli. Multiple chicken-source fecal ExPEC isolates resembled avian and human clinical ExPEC isolates in causing one or more ExPEC-associated illnesses in experimental animal infection models. Additionally, some isolates that were classified as non-ExPEC were able to cause ExPEC-associated illnesses in animal models, and thus future studies are needed to elucidate their mechanisms of virulence. These findings show that E. coli isolates from chicken feces contain ExPEC-associated genes, exhibit ExPEC-associated in vitro phenotypes, and can cause ExPEC-associated infections in animal models, and thus may pose a health threat to poultry and consumers.