Recent genomic studies have revealed extensive variation in natural populations of many pathogenic bacteria. However, the evolutionary processes which contribute to much of this variation remain unclear. A previous whole-genome DNA microarray study identified variation at a large chromosomal region (RD13) of Staphylococcus aureus which encodes a family of proteins with homology to staphylococcal and streptococcal superantigens, designated staphylococcal exotoxin-like (SET) proteins. In the present study, RD13 was found in all 63 S. aureus isolates of divergent clonal, geographic, and disease origins but contained a high level of variation in gene content in different strains. A central variable region which contained from 6 to 10 different set genes, depending on the strain, was identified, and DNA sequence analysis suggests that horizontal gene transfer and recombination have contributed to the diversification of RD13. Phylogenetic analysis based on the RD13 DNA sequence of 18 strains suggested that loss of various set genes has occurred independently several times, in separate lineages of pathogenic S. aureus, providing a model to explain the molecular variation of RD13 in extant strains. In spite of multiple episodes of set deletion, analysis of the ratio of silent substitutions in set genes to amino acid replacements in their products suggests that purifying selection (selective constraint) is acting to maintain SET function. Further, concurrent transcription in vitro of six of the seven set genes in strain COL was detected, indicating that the expression of set genes has been maintained in contemporary strains, and Western immunoblot analysis indicated that multiple SET proteins are expressed during the course of human infections. Overall, we have shown that the chromosomal region RD13 has diversified extensively through episodes of gene deletion and recombination. The coexpression of many set genes and the production of multiple SET proteins during human infection suggests an important role in host-pathogen interactions.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Infectious Diseases