Bacteriophage Resistance Affects Flavobacterium columnare Virulence Partly via Mutations in Genes Related to Gliding Motility and the Type IX Secretion System

Heidi M.T. Kunttu, Anniina Runtuvuori-Salmela, Krister Sundell, Tom Wiklund, Mathias Middelboe, Lotta Landor, Roghaieh Ashrafi, Ville Hoikkala, Lotta Riina Sundberg*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Increasing problems with antibiotic resistance have directed interest toward phage therapy in the aquaculture industry. However, phage resistance evolving in target bacteria is considered a challenge. To investigate how phage resistance influences the fish pathogen Flavobacterium columnare, two wild-type bacterial isolates, FCO-F2 and FCO-F9, were exposed to phages (FCO-F2 to FCOV-F2, FCOV-F5, and FCOV-F25, and FCO-F9 to FCL-2, FCOV-F13, and FCOV-F45), and resulting phenotypic and genetic changes in bacteria were analyzed. Bacterial viability first decreased in the exposure cultures but started to increase after 1 to 2 days, along with a change in colony morphology from original rhizoid to rough, leading to 98% prevalence of the rough morphotype. Twenty-four isolates (including four isolates from no-phage treatments) were further characterized for phage resistance, antibiotic susceptibility, motility, adhesion, and biofilm formation, protease activity, whole-genome sequencing, and virulence in rainbow trout fry. The rough isolates arising in phage exposure were phage resistant with low virulence, whereas rhizoid isolates maintained phage susceptibility and high virulence. Gliding motility and protease activity were also related to the phage susceptibility. Observed mutations in phage-resistant isolates were mostly located in genes encoding the type IX secretion system, a component of the Bacteroidetes gliding motility machinery. However, not all phage-resistant isolates had mutations, indicating that phage resistance in F. columnare is a multifactorial process, including both genetic mutations and changes in gene expression. Phage resistance may not, however, be a challenge for development of phage therapy against F. columnare infections since phage resistance is associated with decreases in bacterial virulence. IMPORTANCE Phage resistance of infectious bacteria is a common phenomenon posing challenges for the development of phage therapy. Along with a growing world population and the need for increased food production, constantly intensifying animal farming has to face increasing problems of infectious diseases. Columnaris disease, caused by Flavobacterium columnare, is a worldwide threat for salmonid fry and juvenile farming. Without antibiotic treatments, infections can lead to 100% mortality in a fish stock. Phage therapy of columnaris disease would reduce the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and antibiotic loads by the aquaculture industry, but phage-resistant bacterial isolates may become a risk. However, phenotypic and genetic characterization of phage-resistant F. columnare isolates in this study revealed that they are less virulent than phage-susceptible isolates and thus not a challenge for phage therapy against columnaris disease. This is valuable information for the fish farming industry globally when considering phage-based prevention and curing methods for F. columnare infections.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere00812-21
JournalApplied and Environmental Microbiology
Issue number16
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • bacteriophage
  • colony morphology
  • Flavobacterium columnare
  • gliding motility
  • mutation
  • phage resistance
  • type IX secretion system
  • virulence


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