Previous work in our labs has shown that avian Escherichia coli virulence is correlated with resistance to complement. Also, our studies have revealed that the presence of the increased serum survival gene (iss), known to contribute to the complement resistance and virulence of mammalian E. coli, may predict the virulent nature of an avian E. coli isolate. This relationship warrants further research, but further clarification of the relationship among virulence, complement resistance, and iss sequences requires use of complement susceptibility assays. Such assays, unfortunately, are labor-intensive, expensive, and difficult to perform. In the present study, the results of two complement susceptibility assays for 20 E. coli isolates, 10 incriminated in avian colibacillosis and 10 from the intestinal tracts of apparently healthy birds, were compared in an attempt to determine if flow cytometric analysis was a reasonable alternative to a viable count assay. In addition, the virulence of these isolates for chick embryos was determined, and each isolate was examined for the presence of iss using amplification techniques. The flow cytometric method was found to be repeatable for most isolates, and its results showed moderate agreement with those obtained through viable counts. All intestinal isolates of healthy birds proved avirulent using the embryo lethality assay; however, not all isolates from sick birds were demonstrated to be virulent. Possible explanations of these results include that the methods originally used to isolate these organisms failed to detect the illness-inciting strains or that the virulence of these strains had declined following initial isolation. Additionally, we must consider the possibility that the embryo lethality assay of virulence used here might not be sensitive enough to detect differences between these two groups of isolates. Also, it should be noted that virulence assays, such as the one used here, fail to account for predisposing host or environmental conditions, enabling a less virulent isolate to cause disease under natural conditions. Interestingly, the complement resistance of a strain was significantly associated with its lethality in embryos, and iss-containing isolates were significantly more likely than those lacking iss to be classified as complement-resistant and virulent. Such results, at least for this group of avian E. coli, suggest that there is a compelling but imperfect relationship among complement resistance, virulence, and the presence of iss. These results also suggest that the flow cytometric assay may be a reasonable alternative to the viable count method of determining complement resistance.
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