What makes a bacterial species pathogenic? Comparative genomic analysis of the genus Leptospira

Derrick E. Fouts, Michael A. Matthias, Haritha Adhikarla, Ben Adler, Luciane Amorim-Santos, Douglas E. Berg, Dieter Bulach, Alejandro Buschiazzo, Yung-Fu Chang, Renee L. Galloway, David A. Haake, Daniel H. Haft, Rudy Hartskeerl, Albert I. Ko, Paul N. Levett, James Matsunaga, Ariel E. Mechaly, Jonathan M. Monk, Ana L. T. Nascimento, Karen E. NelsonBernhard Palsson, Sharon J. Peacock, Mathieu Picardeau, Jessica N. Ricaldi, Janjira Thaipandungpanit, Elsio A. Wunder Jr., X. Frank Yang, Jun-Jie Zhang, Joseph M. Vinetz

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204 Citations (Scopus)


Leptospirosis, caused by spirochetes of the genus Leptospira, is a globally widespread, neglected and emerging zoonotic disease. While whole genome analysis of individual pathogenic, intermediately pathogenic and saprophytic Leptospira species has been reported, comprehensive cross-species genomic comparison of all known species of infectious and non-infectious Leptospira, with the goal of identifying genes related to pathogenesis and mammalian host adaptation, remains a key gap in the field. Infectious Leptospira, comprised of pathogenic and intermediately pathogenic Leptospira, evolutionarily diverged from non-infectious, saprophytic Leptospira, as demonstrated by the following computational biology analyses: 1) the definitive taxonomy and evolutionary relatedness among all known Leptospira species; 2) genomically-predicted metabolic reconstructions that indicate novel adaptation of infectious Leptospira to mammals, including sialic acid biosynthesis, pathogen-specific porphyrin metabolism and the first-time demonstration of cobalamin (B12) autotrophy as a bacterial virulence factor; 3) CRISPR/Cas systems demonstrated only to be present in pathogenic Leptospira, suggesting a potential mechanism for this clade’s refractoriness to gene targeting; 4) finding Leptospira pathogen-specific specialized protein secretion systems; 5) novel virulence-related genes/gene families such as the Virulence Modifying (VM) (PF07598 paralogs) proteins and pathogen-specific adhesins; 6) discovery of novel, pathogen-specific protein modification and secretion mechanisms including unique lipoprotein signal peptide motifs, Sec-independent twin arginine protein secretion motifs, and the absence of certain canonical signal recognition particle proteins from all Leptospira; and 7) and demonstration of infectious Leptospira-specific signal-responsive gene expression, motility and chemotaxis systems. By identifying large scale changes in infectious (pathogenic and intermediately pathogenic) vs. non-infectious Leptospira, this work provides new insights into the evolution of a genus of bacterial pathogens. This work will be a comprehensive roadmap for understanding leptospirosis pathogenesis. More generally, it provides new insights into mechanisms by which bacterial pathogens adapt to mammalian hosts.
Original languageEnglish
Article number0004403
Number of pages57
JournalPLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 18 Feb 2016


  • leptospira
  • bacterial pathogens
  • leptospira interrogans
  • biosynthesis
  • pathogens
  • genome analysis
  • bacteriophages
  • sequence alignment

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