Role of the metalloprotease Vvp and the virulence plasmid pR99 of Vibrio vulnificus serovar E in surface colonization and fish virulence

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SummaryThe virulence for eels of Vibrio vulnificus biotype 2 serovar E (VSE) is conferred by a plasmid that codifies ability to survive in eel serum and cause septicaemia. To find out whether the plasmid and the selected chromosomal gene vvp plays a role in the initial steps of infection, the VSE strain CECT4999, the cured strain CT218 and the Vvp-deficient mutant CT201 (obtained in this work by allelic exchange) were used in colonization and virulence experiments. The eel avirulent biotype 1 (BT1) strain YJ016, whose genome has been sequenced, was used for comparative purposes. The global results demonstrate that the plasmid does not play a significant role in surface colonization because (i) CECT4999 and CT218 were equally chemoattracted towards and adherent to eel mucus and gills, and (ii) CT218 persisted in gills from bath-infected eels 2 weeks post infection. In contrast, mutation in vvp gene reduced significantly chemoattraction and attachment to eel mucus and gills, as well as virulence degree by immersion challenge. Co-infection experiments by bath with CECT4999 and CT201 confirmed that Vvp was involved in eel colonization and persistence in gills, because CECT4999 was recovered at higher numbers compared with CT201 from both internal organs of moribund fish (ratio 4:1) and gills from survivors (ratio 50:1). Interestingly, YJ016 also showed chemoattraction and attachment to mucus, and complementation of CT201 with BT1-vvp gene restored both activities together with virulence degree by immersion challenge. Additional experiments with algae mucus and purified mucin gave similar results. In conclusion, the protease Vvp of V. vulnificus seems to play an essential role in colonization of mucosal surfaces present in aquatic environments. Among the V. vulnificus strains colonizing fish mucus, only those harbouring the plasmid could survive in blood and cause septicaemia.

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