Establishing the risk of human infection is one of the goals of public health. For bacterial pathogens, the virulence and zoonotic potential can often be related to their host source.
Escherichia colibacteria are common contaminants of water associated with human recreation and consumption, and many strains are pathogenic. In this study, we analyzed three promoter-containing intergenic regions from 284 diverse E. coliisolates in an attempt to identify molecular signatures associated with specific host types. Promoter sequences controlling production of curli fimbriae, flagella, and nutrient import yielded a phylogenetic tree with isolates clustered by established phylogenetic grouping (A, B1, B2, and D) but not by host source. Virulence genes were more prevalent in groups B2 and D isolates and in human isolates. Group B1 isolates, primarily from nonhuman sources, were the most genetically similar, indicating that they lacked molecular adaptations to specific host environments and were likely host generalists. Conversely, B2 isolates, primarily from human sources, displayed greater genetic distances and were more likely to be host adapted. In agreement with these hypotheses, prevalence of σ S activity and the rdar morphotype, phenotypes associated with environmental survival, were significantly higher in B1 isolates than in B2 isolates. Based on our findings, we speculate that E. colihost specificity is not defined by genome-wide sequence changes but, rather, by the presence or absence of specific genes and associated promoter elements. Furthermore, the requirements for colonization of the human gastrointestinal tract may lead to E. colilifestyle changes along with selection for increased virulence.