Siderophores are secreted ferric ion chelators used to obtain iron in nutrient-limited environmental niches, including human hosts. While all Escherichia coli express the enterobactin (Ent) siderophore system, isolates from patients with urinary tract infections additionally express the genetically distinct yersiniabactin (Ybt) siderophore system. To determine whether the Ent and Ybt systems are functionally redundant for iron uptake, we compared the growth of different isogenic siderophore biosynthetic mutants in the presence of transferrin, a human iron-binding protein. We observed that Ybt expression does not compensate for deficient Ent expression following low-density inoculation. Using transcriptional and product analysis, we found this non-redundancy to be attributable to a density-dependent transcriptional stimulation cycle in which Ybt functions as an autoinducer. These results distinguish the Ybt system as a combined quorum-sensing and siderophore system. These functions may reflect Ybt as a public good within bacterial communities or as an adaptation to confined, subcellular compartments in infected hosts. This combined functionality may contribute to the extraintestinal pathogenic potential of E. coli and related Enterobacterales. IMPORTANCE Patients with urinary tract infections are often infected with Escherichia coli strains carrying adaptations that increase their pathogenic potential. One of these adaptations is the accumulation of multiple siderophore systems, which scavenge iron for nutritional use. While iron uptake is important for bacterial growth, the increased metabolic costs of siderophore production could diminish bacterial fitness during infections. In a siderophore-dependent growth condition, we show that the virulence-associated yersiniabactin siderophore system in uropathogenic E. coli is not redundant with the ubiquitous E. coli enterobactin system. This arises not from differences in iron-scavenging activity but because yersiniabactin is preferentially expressed during bacterial crowding, leaving bacteria dependent upon enterobactin for growth at low cell density. Notably, this regulatory mode arises because yersiniabactin stimulates its own expression, acting as an autoinducer in a previously unappreciated quorum-sensing system. This unexpected result connects quorum-sensing with pathogenic potential in E. coli and related Enterobacterales.

Original languageEnglish
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2024


  • Escherichia coli
  • host-pathogen interactions
  • iron acquisition
  • metabolic regulation
  • quorum sensing
  • secondary metabolism
  • siderophores
  • urinary tract infection
  • virulence regulation


Dive into the research topics of 'Yersiniabactin is a quorum-sensing autoinducer and siderophore in uropathogenic Escherichia coli'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this