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Enteroaggregative E. coli (EAEC) are a major cause of diarrhoea worldwide. Due to their heterogeneity and carriage in healthy individuals, identification of diagnostic virulence markers for pathogenic strains has been difficult. In this study, we have determined phenotypic and genotypic differences between EAEC strains of sequence types (STs) epidemiologically associated with asymptomatic carriage (ST31) and diarrhoeal disease (ST40). ST40 strains demonstrated significantly enhanced intestinal adherence, biofilm formation, and pro-inflammatory interleukin-8 secretion compared with ST31 isolates. This was independent of whether strains were derived from diarrhoea patients or healthy controls. Whole genome sequencing revealed differences in putative virulence genes encoding aggregative adherence fimbriae, E. coli common pilus, flagellin and EAEC heat-stable enterotoxin 1. Our results indicate that ST40 strains have a higher intrinsic potential of human pathogenesis due to a specific combination of virulence-related factors which promote host cell colonization and inflammation. These findings may contribute to the development of genotypic and/or phenotypic markers for EAEC strains of high virulence.
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