1887

Abstract

is a Gram-negative human commensal pathogen, with extensive phenotypic plasticity afforded by phase-variable (PV) gene expression. Phase variation is a stochastic switch in gene expression from an ON to an OFF state, mediated by localized hypermutation of simple sequence repeats (SSRs). Circulating clones vary in propensity to cause disease, with some clonal complexes (ccs) classified as hypervirulent and others as carriage-associated. We examined the PV gene repertoires, or phasome, of these lineages in order to determine whether phase variation contributes to disease propensity. We analysed 3328 genomes representative of nine circulating meningococcal ccs with Phasome, a tool that identifies PV genes by the presence of SSRs and homologous gene clusters. The presence, absence and functions of all identified PV gene clusters were confirmed by annotation or searches within the PubMLST database. While no significant differences were detected in the number of PV genes or the core, conserved phasome content between hypervirulent and carriage lineages, individual ccs exhibited major variations in PV gene numbers. Phylogenetic clusters produced by phasome or core genome analyses were similar, indicating co-evolution of PV genes with the core genome. While conservation of PV clusters is high, with 76 % present in all meningococcal isolates, maintenance of an SSR is variable, ranging from conserved in all isolates to present only in a single cc, indicating differing evolutionary trajectories for each lineage. Diverse functional groups of PV genes were present across the meningococcal lineages; however, the majority directly or indirectly influence bacterial surface antigens and could impact on future vaccine development. Finally, we observe that meningococci have open pan phasomes, indicating ongoing evolution of PV gene content and a significant potential for adaptive changes in this clinically relevant genus.

Funding
This study was supported by the:
  • , Medical Research Council, http://dx.doi.org/10.13039/501100000265, (Award MR/M020193/1)
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2020-04-29
2020-06-04
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