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Shigella sonnei is a major cause of bacillary dysentery and an increasing concern due to the spread of multidrug resistance. S. sonnei harbors pINV, an ∼210 kb plasmid that encodes a type III secretion system (T3SS), which is essential for virulence. During growth in the laboratory, avirulence arises spontaneously in S. sonnei at high frequency, hampering studies on and vaccine development against this important pathogen. Here, we investigated the molecular basis for the emergence of avirulence in S. sonnei and showed that avirulence mainly results from pINV loss, which is consistent with previous findings. Ancestral deletions have led to the loss from S. sonnei pINV of two toxin-antitoxin (TA) systems involved in plasmid maintenance, CcdAB and GmvAT, which are found on pINV in Shigella flexneri. We showed that the introduction of these TA systems into S. sonnei pINV reduced but did not eliminate pINV loss, while the single amino acid polymorphisms found in the S. sonnei VapBC TA system compared with S. flexneri VapBC also contributed to pINV loss. Avirulence also resulted from deletions of T3SS-associated genes in pINV through recombination between insertion sequences (ISs) on the plasmid. These events differed from those observed in S. flexneri due to the different distribution and repertoire of ISs. Our findings demonstrated that TA systems and ISs influenced plasmid dynamics and loss in S. sonnei and could be exploited for the design and evaluation of vaccines. IMPORTANCE Shigella sonnei is the major cause of shigellosis in high-income and industrializing countries and is an emerging, multidrug-resistant pathogen. A significant challenge when studying this bacterium is that it spontaneously becomes avirulent during growth in the laboratory through loss of its virulence plasmid (pINV). Here, we deciphered the mechanisms leading to avirulence in S. sonnei and how the limited repertoire and amino acid sequences of plasmid-encoded toxin-antitoxin (TA) systems make the maintenance of pINV in this bacterium less efficient compared with Shigella flexneri. Our findings highlighted how subtle differences in plasmids in closely related species have marked effects and could be exploited to reduce plasmid loss in S. sonnei. This should facilitate research on this bacterium and vaccine development.

Original publication




Journal article


J Bacteriol

Publication Date





Shigella sonnei, T3SS, TA systems, VapBC, insertion sequences, virulence plasmid, Amino Acid Sequence, Antitoxins, DNA Transposable Elements, Dysentery, Bacillary, Humans, Plasmids, Shigella flexneri, Shigella sonnei, Toxin-Antitoxin Systems, Virulence