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Escherichia coli is a leading cause of invasive bacterial infections in humans. Capsule polysaccharide has an important role in bacterial pathogenesis, and the K1 capsule has been firmly established as one of the most potent capsule types in E. coli through its association with severe infections. However, little is known about its distribution, evolution and functions across the E. coli phylogeny, which is fundamental to elucidating its role in the expansion of successful lineages. Using systematic surveys of invasive E. coli isolates, we show that the K1-cps locus is present in a quarter of bloodstream infection isolates and has emerged in at least four different extraintestinal pathogenic E. coli (ExPEC) phylogroups independently in the last 500 years. Phenotypic assessment demonstrates that K1 capsule synthesis enhances E. coli survival in human serum independent of genetic background, and that therapeutic targeting of the K1 capsule re-sensitizes E. coli from distinct genetic backgrounds to human serum. Our study highlights that assessing the evolutionary and functional properties of bacterial virulence factors at population levels is important to better monitor and predict the emergence of virulent clones, and to also inform therapies and preventive medicine to effectively control bacterial infections whilst significantly lowering antibiotic usage.

Original publication




Journal article


Nat Commun

Publication Date





Humans, Escherichia coli, Escherichia coli Infections, Virulence, Virulence Factors, Escherichia coli Proteins, Phylogeny