A plasmid locus associated with Klebsiella clinical infections encodes a microbiomedependent gut fitness factor

Jay Vornhagen, Christine M. Bassis, Srividya Ramakrishnan, Robert Hein, Sophia Mason, Yehudit Bergman, Nicole Sunshine, Yunfan Fan, Caitlyn L. Holmes, Winston Timp, Michael C. Schatz, Vincent B. Young, Patricia J. Simner, Michael A. Bachman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Klebsiella pneumoniae (Kp) is an important cause of healthcare-associated infections, which increases patient morbidity, mortality, and hospitalization costs. Gut colonization by Kp is consistently associated with subsequent Kp disease, and patients are predominantly infected with their colonizing strain. Our previous comparative genomics study, between disease- causing and asymptomatically colonizing Kp isolates, identified a plasmid-encoded tellurite (TeO3 -2)-resistance (ter) operon as strongly associated with infection. However, TeO3 -2 is extremely rare and toxic to humans. Thus, we used a multidisciplinary approach to determine the biological link between ter and Kp infection. First, we used a genomic and bioinformatic approach to extensively characterize Kp plasmids encoding the ter locus. These plasmids displayed substantial variation in plasmid incompatibility type and gene content. Moreover, the ter operon was genetically independent of other plasmid-encoded virulence and antibiotic resistance loci, both in our original patient cohort and in a large set (n = 88) of publicly available ter operon-encoding Kp plasmids, indicating that the ter operon is likely playing a direct, but yet undescribed role in Kp disease. Next, we employed multiple mouse models of infection and colonization to show that 1) the ter operon is dispensable during bacteremia, 2) the ter operon enhances fitness in the gut, 3) this phenotype is dependent on the colony of origin of mice, and 4) antibiotic disruption of the gut microbiota eliminates the requirement for ter. Furthermore, using 16S rRNA gene sequencing, we show that the ter operon enhances Kp fitness in the gut in the presence of specific indigenous microbiota, including those predicted to produce short chain fatty acids. Finally, administration of exogenous short-chain fatty acids in our mouse model of colonization was sufficient to reduce fitness of a ter mutant. These findings indicate that the ter operon, strongly associated with human infection, encodes factors that resist stress induced by the indigenous gut microbiota during colonization. This work represents a substantial advancement in our molecular understanding of Kp pathogenesis and gut colonization, directly relevant to Kp disease in healthcare settings.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere1009537
JournalPLoS Pathogens
Issue number4
StatePublished - 30 Apr 2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Vornhagen et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


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