Evolutionary dynamics of Staphylococcus aureus during progression from carriage to disease

Young, B. C., Golubchik, T., Batty, E. M., Fung, R., Larner-Svennson, H., Votintseva, A., Miller, R. R., Godwin, H., Knox, K., Everitt, R. G., Iqbal, Z., Rimmer, A. J., Cule, M., Ip C. L. C., Didelot, X., Harding, R. M., Donnelly, P. J., Peto, T. E., Crook, D. W., Bowden, R. and D. J. Wilson (2012)
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 109: 4550-4555. (pdf F1000)

Whole genome sequencing offers new insights into the evolution of bacterial pathogens and the etiology of bacterial disease. Staphylococcus aureus is a major cause of bacteria-associated mortality and invasive disease, and is carried asymptomatically by 27% of adults. 80% of bacteremias match the carried strain. However, the role of evolutionary change in the pathogen during the progression from carriage to disease is incompletely understood. Here we use high-throughput genome sequencing to discover the genetic changes that accompany the transition from nasal carriage to fatal bloodstream infection in an individual colonized with methicillin-sensitive S. aureus (MSSA). We found a single, cohesive population exhibiting a repertoire of 30 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and four insertion/deletion (indel) variants. Mutations accumulated at a steady rate over a 13 month period, except for a cluster of mutations preceding the transition to disease. Although bloodstream bacteria differed by just eight mutations from the original nasally carried bacteria, half of those mutations caused truncation of proteins, including a premature stop codon in an AraC-family transcriptional regulator that has been implicated in pathogenicity. Comparison to evolution in two asymptomatic carriers supported the conclusion that clusters of protein-truncating mutations are highly unusual. Our results demonstrate that bacterial diversity in vivo is limited but nonetheless detectable by whole genome sequencing, enabling the study of evolutionary dynamics within the host. Regulatory or structural changes that occur during carriage may be functionally important for pathogenesis, so identifying those changes is a crucial step in understanding the biological causes of invasive bacterial disease.