NGS-based phylogeny of diphtheria-related pathogenicity factors in different Corynebacterium spp. implies species-specific virulence transmission

Research paper by Alexandra Dangel, Anja Berger, Regina Konrad, Andreas Sing

Indexed on: 01 Feb '19Published on: 01 Feb '19Published in: BMC Microbiology


Diphtheria toxin (DT) is produced by toxigenic strains of the human pathogen Corynebacterium diphtheriae as well as zoonotic C. ulcerans and C. pseudotuberculosis. Toxigenic strains may cause severe respiratory diphtheria, myocarditis, neurological damage or cutaneous diphtheria. The DT encoding tox gene is located in a mobile genomic region and tox variability between C. diphtheriae and C. ulcerans has been postulated based on sequences of a few isolates. In contrast, species-specific sequence analysis of the diphtheria toxin repressor gene (dtxR), occurring both in toxigenic and non-toxigenic Corynebacterium species, has not been done yet. We used whole genome sequencing data from 91 toxigenic and 46 non-toxigenic isolates of different pathogenic Corynebacterium species of animal or human origin to elucidate differences in extracted DT, DtxR and tox-surrounding genetic elements by a phylogenetic analysis in a large sample set.Sequences of both DT and DtxR, extracted from whole genome sequencing data, could be classified in four distinct, nearly species-specific clades, corresponding to C. diphtheriae, C. pseudotuberculosis, C. ulcerans and atypical C. ulcerans from a non-toxigenic toxin gene-bearing wildlife cluster. Average amino acid similarities were above 99% for DT and DtxR within the four groups, but lower between them. For DT, subgroups below species level could be identified, correlating with different tox-comprising mobile genetic elements. In most C. diphtheriae, tox genes were located within known prophages. In contrast, in C. ulcerans diverse tox-including mobile elements could be identified: either prophages differing from C. diphtheriae prophages or an alternative pathogenicity island (PAI) described previously. One isolate showed a different, shorter tox-comprising putative PAI. Beyond the tox-overlapping elements, most isolates harbored a variety of additional prophages.Our NGS data from 137 isolates indicate the existence of different genetic backgrounds of DT-mediated pathogenicity in different Corynebacterium species and evolution of once acquired pathogenicity features with the strains. Different groups of pathogenicity-related elements within C. ulcerans imply that tox transmission pathways between isolates may differ in the zoonotic species and contribute to their emerging pathogenic potential.

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