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Prevalence and Genomic Characterization of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Cow-Calf Herds throughout California


Escherichia coli serotype O157:H7 is a zoonotic food- and waterborne bacterial pathogen that causes a high hospitalization rate and can cause life-threatening complications. Increasingly, E. coli O157:H7 infections appear to originate from fresh produce. Ruminants, such as cattle, are a prominent reservoir of E. coli O157:H7 in the United States. California is one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world for fresh produce, beef, and milk. The close proximity of fresh produce and cattle presents food safety challenges on a uniquely large scale. We performed a survey of E. coli O157:H7 on 20 farms in California to observe the regional diversity and prevalence of E. coli O157:H7. Isolates were obtained from enrichment cultures of cow feces. Some farms were sampled on two dates. Genomes from isolates were sequenced to determine their relatedness and pathogenic potential. E. coli O157:H7 was isolated from approximately half of the farms. The point prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 on farms was highly variable, ranging from zero to nearly 90%. Within farms, generally one or a few lineages were found, even when the rate of isolation was high. On farms with high isolation rates, a single clonal lineage accounted for most of the isolates. Farms that were visited months after the first visit might have had the same lineages of E. coli O157:H7. Strains of E. coli O157:H7 may be persistent for months on farms.IMPORTANCE This survey of 20 cow-calf operations from different regions of California provides an in depth look at resident Escherichia coli O157:H7 populations at the molecular level. E. coli O157:H7 is found to have a highly variable prevalence, and with whole-genome sequencing, high prevalences in herds were found to be due to a single lineage shed from multiple cows. Few repeat lineages were found between farms in this area; therefore, we predict that E. coli O157:H7 has significant diversity in this area beyond what is detected in this survey. All isolates from this study were found to have pathogenic potential based on the presence of key virulence gene sequences. This represents a novel insight into pathogen diversity within a single subtype and will inform future attempts to survey regional pathogen populations.

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