Acquired metallo-β-lactamases (MBLs) are resistance determinants of increasing clinical importance in Gram-negative bacterial pathogens, which confer a broad-spectrum β-lactam resistance, including carbapenems. Several such enzymes have been described since the 1990s. In the present study, a novel acquired MBL, named FIM-1, was identified and characterized. The blaFIM-1 gene was cloned from a multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa clinical isolate (FI-14/157) cultured from a patient with a vascular graft infection in Florence, Italy. The isolate belonged in the sequence type 235 epidemic clonal lineage. The FIM-1 enzyme is a member of subclass B1 and, among acquired MBLs, exhibited the highest similarity (ca. 40% amino acid identity) with NDM-type enzymes. In P. aeruginosa FI-14/157, the blaFIM-1 gene was apparently inserted into the chromosome and associated with ISCR19-like elements that were likely involved in the capture and mobilization of this MBL gene. Transfer experiments of the blaFIM-1 gene to an Escherichia coli strain or another P. aeruginosa strain by conjugation or electrotransformation were not successful. The FIM-1 protein was produced in E. coli and purified by two chromatography steps. Analysis of the kinetic parameters, carried out with the purified enzyme, revealed that FIM-1 has a broad substrate specificity, with a preference for penicillins (except the 6α-methoxy derivative temocillin) and carbapenems. Aztreonam was not hydrolyzed. Detection of this novel type of acquired MBL in a P. aeruginosa clinical isolate underscores the increasing diversity of such enzymes that can be encountered in the clinical setting.
One hundred sixty-nine nonreplicate imipenem-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa strains isolated in a large hospital on the coastal region of Croatia were studied. The most active antibiotics were colistin and amikacin. Most of the isolates were multiresistant. The most prevalent serotype was O12, followed by O11. Six strains carried the blaVIM-2 gene located in a novel class 1 integron composed in its variable part of the blaVIM-2-blaoxa-10-ΔqacF-aacA4 genes. Metallo-β-lactamase-producing strains belonged to sequence types ST235 and ST111.
A class D β-lactamase determinant was isolated from the genome of Legionella (Fluoribacter) gormanii ATCC 33297T. The enzyme, named OXA-29, is quite divergent from other class D β-lactamases, being more similar (33 to 43% amino acid identity) to those of groups III (OXA-1) and IV (OXA-9, OXA-12, OXA-18, and OXA-22) than to other class D enzymes (21 to 24% sequence identity). Phylogenetic analysis confirmed the closer ancestry of OXA-29 with members of the former groups. The OXA-29 enzyme was purified from an Escherichia coli strain overexpressing the gene via a T7-based expression system by a single ion-exchange chromatography step on S-Sepharose. The mature enzyme consists of a 28.5-kDa polypeptide and exhibits an isoelectric pH of >9. Analysis of the kinetic parameters of OXA-29 revealed efficient activity (kcat/Km ratios of >105 M−1 · s−1) for several penam compounds (oxacillin, methicillin, penicillin G, ampicillin, carbenicillin, and piperacillin) and also for cefazolin and nitrocefin. Oxyimino cephalosporins and aztreonam were also hydrolyzed, although less efficiently (kcat/Km ratios of around 103 M−1 · s−1). Carbapenems were neither hydrolyzed nor inhibitory. OXA-29 was inhibited by BRL 42715 (50% inhibitory concentration [IC50], 0.44 μM) and by tazobactam (IC50, 3.2 μM), but not by clavulanate. It was also unusually resistant to chloride ions (IC50, >100 mM). Unlike OXA-10, OXA-29 was apparently found as a dimer both in diluted solutions and in the presence of EDTA. Its activity was either unaffected or inhibited by divalent cations. OXA-29 is a new class D β-lactamase that exhibits some unusual properties likely reflecting original structural and mechanistic features.
CENTA, a chromogenic cephalosporin, is readily hydrolyzed by β-lactamases of all classes except for the Aeromonas hydrophila metalloenzyme. Although it cannot practically be used for the detection of β-lactamase-producing strains on agar plates, it should be quite useful for kinetic studies and the detection of the enzymes in crude extracts and chromatographic fractions.
The blaFEZ-1 gene coding for the metallo-β-lactamase of Legionella (Fluoribacter) gormanii ATCC 33297T was overexpressed via a T7 expression system in Escherichia coli BL21(DE3)(pLysS). The product was purified to homogeneity in two steps with a yield of 53%. The FEZ-1 metallo-β-lactamase exhibited a broad-spectrum activity profile, with a preference for cephalosporins such as cephalothin, cefuroxime, and cefotaxime. Monobactams were not hydrolyzed. The β-lactamase was inhibited by metal chelators. FEZ-1 is a monomeric enzyme with a molecular mass of 29,440 Da which possesses two zinc-binding sites. Its zinc content did not vary in the pH range of 5 to 9, but the presence of zinc ions modified the catalytic efficiency of the enzyme. A model of the FEZ-1 three-dimensional structure was built.
An Achromobacter xylosoxydans strain showing broad-spectrum resistance to β-lactams (including carbapenems) and aminoglycosides was isolated at the University Hospital of Verona (Verona, Italy). This strain was found to produce metallo-β-lactamase activity and to harbor a 30-kb nonconjugative plasmid, named pAX22, carrying a blaVIM-1 determinant inserted into a class 1 integron. Characterization of this integron, named In70, revealed an original array of four gene cassettes containing, respectively, the blaVIM-1 gene and three different aminoglycoside resistance determinants, including an aacA4 allele, a new aph-like gene named aphA15, and an aadA1 allele. The aphA15 gene is the first example of an aph-like gene carried on a mobile gene cassette, and its product exhibits close similarity to the APH(3′)-IIa aminoglycoside phosphotransferase encoded by Tn5 (36% amino acid identity) and to an APH(3′)-IIb enzyme from Pseudomonas aeruginosa (38% amino acid identity). Expression of the cloned aphA15 gene in Escherichia coli reduced the susceptibility to kanamycin and neomycin as well as (slightly) to amikacin, netilmicin, and streptomycin. Characterization of the 5′ and 3′ conserved segments of In70 and of their flanking regions showed that In70 belongs to the group of class 1 integrons associated with defective transposon derivatives originating from Tn402-like elements. The structure of the 3′ conserved segment indicates the closest ancestry with members of the In0-In2 lineage. In70, with its array of cassette-borne resistance genes, can mediate broad-spectrum resistance to most β-lactams and aminoglycosides.
Eleven environmental samples from different sources were screened for the presence of metallo-β-lactamase-producing bacteria by using a selective enrichment medium containing a carbapenem antibiotic and subsequently testing each isolate for production of EDTA-inhibitable carbapenemase activity. A total of 15 metallo-β-lactamase-producing isolates, including 10 Stenotrophomonas maltophilia isolates, 3 Chryseobacterium spp., one Aeromonas hydrophila isolate, and one Janthinobacterium lividum isolate (a species in which production of metallo-β-lactamase activity was not previously reported), were obtained from 8 samples. In the J. lividum isolate, named JAC1, production of metallo-β-lactamase activity was elicited upon exposure to β-lactams. Screening of a JAC1 genomic library for clones showing a reduced imipenem susceptibility led to the isolation of a metallo-β-lactamase determinant encoding a new member (named THIN-B) of the highly divergent subclass B3 lineage of metallo-β-lactamases. THIN-B is most closely related (35.6% identical residues) to the L1 enzyme of S. maltophilia and more distantly related to the FEZ-1 enzyme of Legionella gormanii (27.8% identity) and to the GOB-1 enzyme of Chryseobacterium meningosepticum (24.2% identity). Sequences related to blaTHIN-B, and inducible production of metallo-β-lactamase activity, were also detected in the J. lividum type strain DSM1522. Expression of the blaTHIN-B gene in Escherichia coli resulted in decreased susceptibility to several β-lactams, including penicillins, cephalosporins (including cephamycins and oxyimino cephalosporins), and carbapenems, revealing a broad substrate specificity of the enzyme. The results of this study indicated that metallo-β-lactamase-producing bacteria are widespread in the environment and identified a new molecular class B enzyme in the environmental species J. lividum.
VIM-1 is a new group 3 metallo-β-lactamase recently detected in carbapenem-resistant nosocomial isolates of Pseudomonas aeruginosa from the Mediterranean area. In this work, VIM-1 was purified from an Escherichia coli strain carrying the cloned blaVIM-1 gene by means of an anion-exchange chromatography step followed by a gel permeation chromatography step. The purified enzyme exhibited a molecular mass of 26 kDa in sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis, and an acidic pI of 5.1 in analytical isoelectric focusing. Amino-terminal sequencing showed that mature VIM-1 results from the removal of a 26-amino-acid signal peptide from the precursor. VIM-1 hydrolyzes a broad array of β-lactam compounds, including penicillins, narrow- to expanded-spectrum cephalosporins, carbapenems, and mechanism-based serine-β-lactamase inactivators. Only monobactams escape hydrolysis. The highest catalytic constant/Km ratios (>106 M−1 · s−1) were observed with carbenicillin, azlocillin, some cephalosporins (cephaloridine, cephalothin, cefuroxime, cefepime, and cefpirome), imipenem, and biapenem. Kinetic parameters showed remarkable variability with different β-lactams and also within the various penam, cephem, and carbapenem compounds, resulting in no clear preference of the enzyme for any of these β-lactam subfamilies. Significant differences were observed with some substrates between the kinetic parameters of VIM-1 and those of other metallo-β-lactamases. Inactivation assays carried out with various chelating agents (EDTA, 1,10-o-phenanthroline, and pyridine-2,6-dicarboxylic acid) indicated that formation of a ternary enzyme-metal-chelator complex precedes metal removal from the zinc center of the protein and revealed notable differences in the inactivation parameters of VIM-1 with different agents.
A new natural TEM-2 derivative, named TEM-72, was identified in a Proteus mirabilis strain and in a Morganella morganii strain isolated in Italy in 1999. Compared to TEM-1, TEM-72 contains the following amino acid substitutions: Q39K, M182T, G238S, and E240K. Kinetic analysis showed that TEM-72 exhibits an extended-spectrum activity, including activity against oxyimino-cephalosporins and aztreonam. Expression of blaTEM-72 in Escherichia coli was capable of decreasing the host susceptibility to the above drugs.
A metallo-β-lactamase determinant was cloned from a genomic library of Legionella (Fluoribacter) gormanii ATCC 33297T constructed in the plasmid vector pACYC184 and transformed into Escherichia coli DH5α, by screening for clones showing a reduced susceptibility to imipenem. The product of the cloned determinant, named FEZ-1, contains a 30-kDa polypeptide and exhibits an isoelectric pH of 7.6. Sequencing revealed that FEZ-1 is a molecular-class B β-lactamase which shares the closest structural similarity (29.7% of identical residues) with the L1 enzyme of Stenotrophomonas maltophilia, being a new member of the highly divergent subclass B3 lineage. All the residues that in L1 are known to be directly or indirectly involved in coordination of the zinc ions were found to be conserved also in FEZ-1, suggesting that the geometry of zinc coordination in the active site of the latter enzyme is identical to that of L1. Unlike L1, however, FEZ-1 appeared to be monomeric in gel permeation chromatography experiments and exhibited a distinctive substrate specificity with a marked preference for cephalosporins and meropenem. The properties of FEZ-1 overall resembled those of a β-lactamase previously purified from the same strain of L. gormanii (T. Fujii, K. Sato, K. Miyata, M. Inoue, and S. Mitsuhashi, Antimicrob. Agents Chemother. 29:925–926, 1986) and are as yet unique among class B enzymes, reinforcing the notion that considerable functional heterogeneity can be encountered among members of this class. A system for overexpression of the blaFEZ-1 gene in E. coli, based on the T7 phage promoter, was also developed.
The metallo-β-lactamase determinant of Acinetobacter baumannii AC-54/97, a clinical isolate from Italy that was previously shown to produce an enzyme related to IMP-1, was isolated by means of a PCR methodology which targets amplification of gene cassette arrays inserted into class 1 integrons. Sequencing revealed that this determinant was an allelic variant (named blaIMP-2) of blaIMP found in Japanese isolates and that it was divergent from the latter by 12% of its nucleotide sequence, which evidently had been acquired independently. Similar to blaIMP, blaIMP-2 was also carried by an integron-borne gene cassette. However, the 59-base element of the blaIMP-2 cassette was unrelated to those of the blaIMP cassettes found in Japanese isolates, indicating a different phylogeny for the gene cassettes carrying the two allelic variants. Expression of the integron-borne blaIMP-2 gene in Escherichia coli resulted in a significant decrease in susceptibility to a broad array of β-lactams (ampicillin, carbenicillin, cephalothin, cefoxitin, ceftazidime, cefepime, and carbapenems). The IMP-2 enzyme was purified from an Escherichia coli strain carrying the cloned determinant, and kinetic parameters were determined with several β-lactam substrates. Compared to IMP-1, the kinetic parameters of IMP-2 were similar overall with some β-lactam substrates (cefoxitin, ceftazidime, cefepime, and imipenem) but remarkably different with others (ampicillin, carbenicillin, cephaloridine, and meropenem), revealing a functional significance of at least some of the mutations that differentiate the two IMP variants. Present findings suggest that the environmental reservoir of blaIMP alleles could be widespread and raise a question about the global risk of their transfer to clinically relevant species.
Erythromycin resistance rates were found to be increased, from 7.1 in 1993 to 32.8% in 1997, among community-acquired Streptococcus pneumoniae isolates from the Siena area of central Italy. Most of the erythromycin-resistant isolates carried ermAM determinants and were also resistant to josamycin and clindamycin, whereas a minority (5.8%) carried mefA determinants and remained susceptible to the latter drugs.
In addition to the BlaB metallo-β-lactamase, Chryseobacterium (Flavobacterium) meningosepticum CCUG 4310 (NCTC 10585) constitutively produces a 31-kDa active-site serine β-lactamase, named CME-1, with an alkaline isoelectric pH. The blaACME gene that encodes the latter enzyme was isolated from a genomic library constructed in the Escherichia coli plasmid vector pACYC184 by screening for cefuroxime-resistant clones. Sequence analysis revealed that the CME-1 enzyme is a new class A β-lactamase structurally divergent from the other members of this class, being most closely related to the VEB-1 (also named CEF-1) and PER β-lactamases and the Bacteroides chromosomal cephalosporinases. The blaACME determinant is located on the chromosome and exhibits features typical of those of C. meningosepticum resident genes. The CME-1 protein was purified from an E. coli strain that overexpresses the cloned gene via a T7-based expression system by means of an anion-exchange chromatography step followed by a gel permeation chromatography step. Kinetic parameters for several substrates were determined. CME-1 is a clavulanic acid-susceptible extended-spectrum β-lactamase that hydrolyzes most cephalosporins, penicillins, and monobactams but that does not hydrolyze cephamycins and carbapenems. The enzyme exhibits strikingly different kinetic parameters for different classes of β-lactams, with both Km and kcat values much higher for cephalosporins than for penicillins and monobactams. However, the variability of both kinetic parameters resulted in overall similar acylation rates (kcat/Km ratios) for all types of β-lactam substrates.
Production of a metallo-β-lactamase activity was detected in a carbapenem-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa clinical isolate (isolate VR-143/97) from an Italian inpatient at the Verona University Hospital (northern Italy). The metallo-β-lactamase determinant was isolated from a genomic library of VR-143/97, constructed in an Escherichia coli plasmid vector, by screening for clones with reduced susceptibility to imipenem. Sequencing of the cloned gene revealed that it encoded a new class B β-lactamase that was named VIM-1. At the sequence level VIM-1 was rather divergent from the other class B enzymes (16.4 to 38.7% identity), overall being more similar to members of subclass B1 including the β-lactamase II of Bacillus cereus (Bc-II), the Bacteroides fragilis CcrA, the Chryseobacterium meningosepticum BlaB, and the cassette-encoded IMP-1 enzymes. Among these, VIM-1 showed the highest degree of similarity to Bc-II. Similarly to blaIMP, blaVIM was also found to be carried on a gene cassette inserted into a class 1 integron. The blaVIM-containing integron was located on the chromosome of P. aeruginosa VR-143/97, and the metallo-β-lactamase-encoding determinant was not transferable to E. coli by conjugation. Expression of the integron-borne blaVIM gene in E. coli resulted in a significant decrease in susceptibility to a broad array of β-lactams (ampicillin, carbenicillin, piperacillin, mezlocillin, cefotaxime, cefoxitin, ceftazidime, cefoperazone, cefepime, and carbapenems), revealing a very broad substrate specificity of the VIM-1 enzyme.
The blaIMP gene coding for the IMP-1 metallo-β-lactamase produced by a Pseudomonas aeruginosa clinical isolate (isolate 101/1477) was overexpressed via a T7 expression system in Escherichia coli BL21(DE3), and its product was purified to homogeneity with a final yield of 35 mg/liter of culture. The structural and functional properties of the enzyme purified from E. coli were identical to those of the enzyme produced by P. aeruginosa. The IMP-1 metallo-β-lactamase exhibits a broad-spectrum activity profile that includes activity against penicillins, cephalosporins, cephamycins, oxacephamycins, and carbapenems. Only monobactams escape its action. The enzyme activity was inhibited by metal chelators, of which 1,10-o-phenanthroline and dipicolinic acid were the most efficient. Two zinc-binding sites were found. The zinc content of the P. aeruginosa 101/1477 metallo-β-lactamase was not pH dependent.
The location and environment of the acquired blaIMP gene, which encodes the IMP-1 metallo-β-lactamase, were investigated in a Japanese Pseudomonas aeruginosa clinical isolate (isolate 101/1477) that produced the enzyme. In this isolate, blaIMP was carried on a 36-kb plasmid, and similar to the identical alleles found in Serratia marcescens and Klebsiella pneumoniae clinical isolates, it was located on a mobile gene cassette inserted into an integron. The entire structure of this integron, named In31, was determined. In31 is a class 1 element belonging to the same group of defective transposon derivatives that originated from Tn402-like ancestors such as In0, In2, and In5. The general structure of In31 appeared to be most closely related to that of In5 from pSCH884, suggesting a recent common phylogeny for these two elements. In In31, the blaIMP cassette is the first of an array of five gene cassettes that also includes an aacA4 cassette and three original cassettes that have never been described in other integrons. The novel cassettes carry, respectively, (i) a new chloramphenicol acetyltransferase-encoding allele of the catB family, (ii) a qac allele encoding a new member of the small multidrug resistance family of proteins, and (iii) an open reading frame encoding a protein of unknown function. All the resistance genes carried on cassettes inserted in In31 were found to be functional in decreasing the in vitro susceptibilities of host strains to the corresponding antimicrobial agents.
The TEM-107 extended-spectrum β-lactamase detected in a Klebsiella pneumoniae clinical isolate had a Gly238Ser substitution compared to the TEM-43 β-lactamase. The MIC of ceftazidime was higher (64 μg/ml) than that of cefotaxime (2 μg/ml) for the isolate. Clavulanic acid reduced the MIC of ceftazidime 64-fold.
The IMP-13 metallo-β-lactamase was overproduced in Escherichia coli BL21(DE3) and purified by chromatography. Analysis of kinetic parameters revealed some notable differences with other IMP-type enzymes, noteworthily a higher catalytic efficiency toward ticarcillin and piperacillin and a marked preference for imipenem over meropenem.
Susceptibility to several β-lactams and β-lactamase production was investigated in a collection of 20 strains of Pseudomonas otitidis, a new Pseudomonas species that has been recently recognized in association with otic infections in humans. All strains appeared to be susceptible to piperacillin, cefotaxime, ceftazidime, and aztreonam, while resistance or decreased susceptibility to carbapenems was occasionally observed. All strains were found to express metallo-β-lactamase (MBL) activity and to carry a new subclass B3 MBL gene, named blaPOM, that appeared to be highly conserved in this species. P. otitidis, therefore, is the first example of a pathogenic Pseudomonas species endowed with a resident MBL. The POM-1 protein from P. otitidis type strain MCC10330 exhibits the closest similarity (60 to 64%) to the L1 MBL of Stenotrophomonas maltophilia. Expression in Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa revealed that, similar to L1 and other subclass B3 MBLs, POM-1 confers decreased susceptibility or resistance to carbapenems, penicillins, and cephalosporins but not to aztreonam. Expression of the POM MBL in P. otitidis is apparently constitutive and, in most strains, does not confer a carbapenem-resistant phenotype. However, a strong inoculum size effect was observed for carbapenem MICs, and carbapenem-resistant mutants could be readily selected upon exposure to imipenem, suggesting that carbapenem-based regimens should be considered with caution for P. otitidis infections.
The production of metallo-β-lactamase (MBL) is an important mechanism of resistance to β-lactam antibiotics, including carbapenems. Despite the discovery and emergence of many acquired metallo-β-lactamases, IMP-type determinants (now counting at least 27 variants) remain the most prevalent in some geographical areas. In Asian countries, and notably Japan, IMP-1 and its closely related variants are most widespread. Some other variants have been detected in other countries and show either an endemic (e.g., IMP-13 in Italy) or sporadic (e.g., IMP-12 in Italy or IMP-18 in the United States) occurrence. The IMP-18-producing Pseudomonas aeruginosa strain PS 297 from the southwestern United States carried at least two class 1 integrons. One was identical to In51, while the other, named In133 and carrying the blaIMP-18 gene cassette in the third position, showed an original array of five gene cassettes, including aacA7, qacF, aadA1, and an unknown open reading frame (ORF). Interestingly. In133 differed significantly from In96, the blaIMP-18-carrying integron identified in a P. aeruginosa isolate from Mexico. The meropenem and ertapenem MIC values were much lower for Escherichia coli strains producing IMP-18 (0.06 and 0.12 μg/ml, respectively) than for strains producing IMP-1 (2 μg/ml for each). Kinetic data obtained with the purified enzyme revealed lower turnover rates of IMP-18 than of other IMP-type enzymes with most substrates.
Metallo-β-lactamases (MBLs) are important enzymatic factors in resistance to β-lactam antibiotics that show important structural and functional heterogeneity. BJP-1 is a subclass B3 MBL determinant produced by Bradyrhizobium japonicum that exhibits interesting properties. BJP-1, like CAU-1 of Caulobacter vibrioides, overall poorly recognizes β-lactam substrates and shows an unusual substrate profile compared to other MBLs. In order to understand the structural basis of these properties, the crystal structure of BJP-1 was obtained at 1.4-Å resolution. This revealed significant differences in the conformation and locations of the active-site loops, determining a rather narrow active site and the presence of a unique N-terminal helix bearing Phe-31, whose side chain binds in the active site and represents an obstacle for β-lactam substrate binding. In order to probe the potential of sulfonamides (known to inhibit various zinc-dependent enzymes) to bind in the active sites of MBLs, the structure of BJP-1 in complex with 4-nitrobenzenesulfonamide was also obtained (at 1.33-Å resolution), thereby revealing the mode of interaction of these molecules in MBLs. Interestingly, sulfonamide binding resulted in the displacement of the side chain of Phe-31 from its hydrophobic binding pocket, where the benzene ring of the molecule is now found. These data further highlight the structural diversity shown by MBLs but also provide interesting insights in the structure-function relationships of these enzymes. More importantly, we provided the first structural observation of MBL interaction with sulfonamides, which might represent an interesting scaffold for the design of MBL inhibitors.
Metallo-β-lactamase (MBL)-producing bacteria are emerging worldwide and represent a formidable threat to the efficacy of relevant β-lactams, including carbapenems, expanded-spectrum cephalosporins, and β-lactamase inactivator/β-lactam combinations. VIM-2 is currently the most widespread MBL and represents a primary target for MBL inhibitor research, the clinical need for which is expected to further increase in the future. Using a saturation mutagenesis approach, we probed the importance of four residues (Phe-61, Ala-64, Tyr-67, and Trp-87) located close to the VIM-2 active site and putatively relevant to the enzyme activity based on structural knowledge of the enzyme and on structure-activity relationships of the subclass B1 MBLs. The ampicillin MIC values shown by the various mutants were affected very differently depending on the randomized amino acid position. Position 64 appeared to be rather tolerant to substitution, and kinetic studies showed that the A64W mutation did not significantly affect substrate hydrolysis or binding, representing an important difference from IMP-type enzymes. Phe-61 and Tyr-67 could be replaced with several amino acids without the ampicillin MIC being significantly affected, but in contrast, Trp-87 was found to be critical for ampicillin resistance. Further kinetic and biochemical analyses of W87A and W87F variants showed that this residue is apparently important for the structure and proper folding of the enzyme but, surprisingly, not for its catalytic activity. These data support the critical role of residue 87 in the stability and folding of VIM-2 and might have strong implications for MBL inhibitor design, as this residue would represent an ideal target for interaction with small molecules.