Persistent presence of outer membrane epitopes during short- and long-term starvation of five Legionella pneumophila strains

Barbara Schrammel, Markus Petzold, Sílvia Cervero-Aragó, Regina Sommer, Christian Lück, Alexander Kirschner*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal article (peer-reviewed)Journal article

3 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Legionella pneumophila, the causative agent of Legionnaire’s disease, may enter a viable but non-culturable (VBNC) state triggered by environmental stress conditions. Specific outer-membrane epitopes of L. pneumophila are used in many diagnostic applications and some of them are linked to important virulence-related factors or endotoxins. However, it is not clear how the presence and status of these epitopes are influenced by environmental stress conditions. In this study, changes of outer membrane epitopes for monoclonal antibodies (mAb) from the Dresden panel and the major outer membrane protein MOMP were analysed for five L. pneumophila strains during short- and long-term starvation in ultrapure water. Results: With ELISA and single cell immuno-fluorescence analysis, we could show that for most of the investigated mAb-strain combinations the total number of mAb-stained Legionella cells stayed constant for up to 400 days. Especially the epitopes of mAb 3/1, 8/5, 26/1 and 20/1, which are specific for L. pneumophila serogroup 1 subtypes, and the mAb 9/1, specific for serogroup 6, showed long-term persistence. For most mAb- stained cells, a high percentage of viable cells was observed at least until 118 days of starvation. At the same time, we observed a reduction of the fluorescence intensity of the stained cells during starvation indicating a loss of epitopes from the cell surface. However, most of the epitopes, including the virulence-associated mAb 3/1 epitope were still present with high fluorescence intensity after 400 days of starvation in up to 50% of the starved L. pneumophila population. Conclusions: The results demonstrate the continuous presence of outer membrane epitopes of L. pneumophila during short-term and long-term starvation. Thus, culture-independent mAb-based diagnostic and detection tools, such as immuno-magnetic separation and microarray techniques are applicable for both L. pneumophila in the culturable and the VBNC state even after long-term starvation but nevertheless require careful testing before application. However, the mere presence of those epitopes is not necessarily an indication of viability or infectivity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number75
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalBMC Microbiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jul 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Epitope
  • Immuno-fluorescence
  • Legionella
  • Outer membrane
  • Persistence
  • Viable but nonculturable

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Microbiology (medical)


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