Molecular characterisation of antimicrobial resistance and virulence genes in Escherichia coli strains isolated from diarrhoeic and healthy rabbits in Tunisia

Raouia Ben Rhouma, Ahlem Jouini, Amira Klibi, Safa Hamrouni, Aziza Boubaker, Souhir Kmiha, Abderrazek Maaroufi


The purpose of this study was to identify Escherichia coli isolates in diarrhoeic and healthy rabbits in Tunisia and characterise their virulence and antibiotic resistance genes. In the 2014-2015 period, 60 faecal samples from diarrhoeic and healthy rabbits were collected from different breeding farms in Tunisia. Susceptibility to 14 antimicrobial agents was tested by disc diffusion method and the mechanisms of gene resistance were evaluated using polymerase chain reaction and sequencing methods. Forty E. coli isolates were recovered in selective media. High frequency of resistance to tetracycline (95%) was detected, followed by different levels of resistance to sulphonamide (72.5%), streptomycin (62.5%), trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (60%), nalidixic acid (32.5%), ampicillin (37.5%) and ticarcillin (35%). E. coli strains were susceptible to cefotaxime, ceftazidime and imipenem. Different variants of blaTEM, tet, sul genes were detected in most of the strains resistant to ampicillin, tetracycline and sulphonamide, respectively. The presence of class 1 integron was studied in 29 sulphonamide-resistant E. coli strains from which 15 harboured class 1 integron with four different arrangements of gene cassettes, dfrA17+aadA5 (n=9), dfrA1 + aadA1 (n=4), dfrA12 + addA2 (n=1), dfrA12+orf+addA2 (n=1). The qnrB gene was detected in six strains out of 13 quinolone-resistant E. coli strains. Seventeen E. coli isolates from diarrhoeic rabbits harboured the enteropathogenic eae genes associated with different virulence genes tested (fimA, cnf1, aer), and affiliated to B2 (n=8) and D (n=9) phylogroups. Isolated E. coli strains from healthy rabbit were harbouring fim A and/or cnf1 genes and affiliated to A and B1 phylogroups. This study showed that E. coli strains from the intestinal tract of rabbits are resistant to the widely prescribed antibiotics in medicine. Therefore, they constitute a reservoir of antimicrobial-resistant genes, which may play a significant role in the spread of antimicrobial resistance. In addition, the eae virulence gene seemed to be implicated in diarrhoea in breeder rabbits in Tunisia.


antibiotic resistance genes; breeding rabbits; E. coli isolates; integrons; virulence genes; Tunisia

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