A fundamental, but unanswered question in host-pathogen interactions is the timing, localization and population distribution of virulence gene expression during infection. Here, microarray and in situ single cell expression methods were used to study Vibrio cholerae growth and virulence gene expression during infection of the rabbit ligated ileal loop model of cholera. Genes encoding the toxin-coregulated pilus (TCP) and cholera toxin (CT) were powerfully expressed early in the infectious process in bacteria adjacent to epithelial surfaces. Increased growth was found to co-localize with virulence gene expression. Significant heterogeneity in the expression of tcpA, the repeating subunit of TCP, was observed late in the infectious process. The expression of tcpA, studied in single cells in a homogeneous medium, demonstrated unimodal induction of tcpA after addition of bicarbonate, a chemical inducer of virulence gene expression. Striking bifurcation of the population occurred during entry into stationary phase: one subpopulation continued to express tcpA, whereas the expression declined in the other subpopulation. ctxA, encoding the A subunit of CT, and toxT, encoding the proximal master regulator of virulence gene expression also exhibited the bifurcation phenotype. The bifurcation phenotype was found to be reversible, epigenetic and to persist after removal of bicarbonate, features consistent with bistable switches. The bistable switch requires the positive-feedback circuit controlling ToxT expression and formation of the CRP-cAMP complex during entry into stationary phase. Key features of this bistable switch also were demonstrated in vivo, where striking heterogeneity in tcpA expression was observed in luminal fluid in later stages of the infection. When this fluid was diluted into artificial seawater, bacterial aggregates continued to express tcpA for prolonged periods of time. The bistable control of virulence gene expression points to a mechanism that could generate a subpopulation of V. cholerae that continues to produce TCP and CT in the rice water stools of cholera patients.
Most pathogenic microorganisms infect in a stepwise manner: colonization of host surfaces is followed by invasion and injury of host tissues and, late in the infectious process, dissemination to other hosts occurs. During its residence in the host, the pathogen produces essential virulence determinants and often replicates rapidly, leading to a vast expansion of its biomass. Although this scenario is well established also for Vibrio cholerae, the cause of a potentially fatal diarrheal illness, it has not previously been possible to identify precisely when or where virulence determinants are produced in the intestine. We addressed this question by investigating the expression of virulence genes by individual V. cholerae during infection of the small intestine. Virulence genes were found to be powerfully expressed early in the infectious process by bacteria in close proximity to epithelial surfaces. Increased replication rates were also localized to epithelial surfaces. During later stages of the infection, the population of V. cholerae bifurcates into two fractions: one subpopulation continues to express virulence genes, whereas these genes are silenced in the other subpopulation. The genetic program controlling the continued production of virulence genes may mediate the persistence of a hyper-infectious subpopulation of bacteria in the stools of cholera patients.