Population structure in the Neisseria, and the biological significance of fuzzy species

Jukka Corander, Thomas R. Connor, Clíona A. O'Dwyer, J. Simon Kroll, William P. Hanage

Abstract

Phenotypic and genetic variation in bacteria can take bewilderingly complex forms even within a single genus. One of the most intriguing examples of this is the genus Neisseria, which comprises both pathogens and commensals colonizing a variety of body sites and host species, and causing a range of disease. Complex relatedness among both named species and previously identified lineages of Neisseria makes it challenging to study their evolution. Using the largest publicly available collection of bacterial sequence data in combination with a population genetic analysis and experiment, we probe the contribution of inter-species recombination to neisserial population structure, and specifically whether it is more common in some strains than others. We identify hybrid groups of strains containing sequences typical of more than one species. These groups of strains, typical of a fuzzy species, appear to have experienced elevated rates of inter-species recombination estimated by population genetic analysis and further supported by transformation experiments. In particular, strains of the pathogen Neisseria meningitidis in the fuzzy species boundary appear to follow a different lifestyle, which may have considerable biological implications concerning distribution of novel resistance elements and meningococcal vaccine development. Despite the strong evidence for negligible geographical barriers to gene flow within the population, exchange of genetic material still shows directionality among named species in a non-uniform manner.

  • Received September 7, 2011.
  • Accepted October 18, 2011.
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