The estuarine, human-pathogenic bacterium responds to low temperature by the formation of viable but nonculturable (VBNC) cells, while starvation at moderate temperatures allows for maintenance of culturability of this organism. Recovery of cold-incubated populations of was restricted to the culturable fraction in slide cultures and most probable number assays. These populations, however, gave between 1.1- and 8-fold higher c.f.u. counts on soft agar plates than on ordinary agar plates, indicating that a small and variable fraction of the cell population was injured rather than nonculturable. Thus, the population of cold-incubated cells is composed of culturable, injured and nonculturable cells, with the numbers of the culturable and injured cells rapidly decreasing during cold incubation. Recovery of nonculturable cells of the organism, however, could not be obtained by any combination of temperature and nutrient shifts in any of the assays. VBNC cells of the organism were assessed with regard to their persistence and stress resistance in comparison to growing and starved cells. The sonication resistance of VBNC cells was initially similar to that of growing cells, but increased during prolonged cold incubation. The final resistance of cold-incubated VBNC cells was equal to the markedly increased resistance of starving cells, which also displayed increased resistance against exposure to ethanol and mechanical stress. Our results indicate that in spite of the apparent absence of recovery under a wide range of laboratory conditions, VBNC cells of undergo changes at low temperature which potentially allow them to persist for extended periods.


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