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DOI: 10.1186/s12866-021-02389-7; PMCID: PMC8641181


BACKGROUND: Escherichia coli is a major neonatal pathogen and the leading cause of early-onset sepsis in preterm newborns. Maternal E. coli strains are transmitted to the newborn causing invasive neonatal disease. However, there is a lack of data regarding the phenotypic and genotypic characterization of E. coli strains colonizing pregnant women during labor.

METHODS: This prospective study performed at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center (OUHSC) from March 2014 to December 2015, aimed to investigate the colonization rate, and the phylogeny, antibiotic resistance traits, and invasive properties of E. coli strains colonizing the cervix of fifty pregnant women diagnosed with preterm labor (PTL). Molecular analyses including bacterial whole-genome sequencing (WGS), were performed to examine phylogenetic relationships among the colonizing strains and compare them with WGS data of representative invasive neonatal E. coli isolates. Phenotypic and genotypic antibiotic resistance traits were investigated. The bacteria's ability to invade epithelial cells in vitro was determined.

RESULTS: We recruited fifty women in PTL. Cervical samples yielded E. coli in 12 % (n=6). The mean gestational age was 32.5 (SD±3.19) weeks. None delivered an infant with E. coli disease. Phenotypic and genotypic antibiotic resistance testing did not overall demonstrate extensive drug resistance traits among the cervical E. coli isolates, however, one isolate was multi-drug resistant. The isolates belonged to five different phylogroups, and WGS analyses assigned each to individual multi-locus sequence types. Single nucleotide polymorphism-based comparisons of cervical E. coli strains with six representative neonatal E. coli bacteremia isolates demonstrated that only half of the cervical E. coli isolates were phylogenetically related to these neonatal invasive strains. Moreover, WGS comparisons showed that each cervical E. coli isolate had distinct genomic regions that were not shared with neonatal E. coli isolates. Cervical and neonatal E. coli isolates that were most closely related at the phylogenetic level had similar invasion capacity into intestinal epithelial cells. In contrast, phylogenetically dissimilar cervical E. coli strains were the least invasive among all isolates.

CONCLUSIONS: This pilot study showed that a minority of women in PTL were colonized in the cervix with E. coli, and colonizing strains were not phylogenetically uniformly representative of E. coli strains that commonly cause invasive disease in newborns. Larger studies are needed to determine the molecular characteristics of E. coli strains colonizing pregnant women associated with an increased risk of neonatal septicemia.

Journal Title

BMC microbiology [electronic resource]





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Antibiotic resistance; Escherichia coli; Molecular phylogenetics; Neonatal sepsis; Preterm labor; Whole genome sequencing


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