In mycobacteria, conjugation differs from the canonical Hfr model, but is still poorly understood. Here, we quantified this evolutionary processe in a natural mycobacterial population, taking advantage of a large clinical strain collection of the emerging pathogen Mycobacterium abscessus (MAB).
Multilocus sequence typing confirmed the existence of three M. abscessus subspecies, and unravelled extensive allelic exchange between them. Furthermore, an asymmetrical gene flow occurring between these main lineages was detected, resulting in highly admixed strains. Intriguingly, these mosaic strains were significantly associated with cystic fibrosis patients with lung infections or chronic colonization. Genome sequencing of those hybrid strains confirmed that half of their genomic content was remodelled in large genomic blocks, leading to original tri-modal ‘patchwork’ architecture. One of these hybrid strains acquired a locus conferring inducible macrolide resistance, and a large genomic insertion from a slowly growing pathogenic mycobacteria, suggesting an adaptive gene transfer. This atypical genomic architecture of the highly recombinogenic strains is consistent with the distributive conjugal transfer (DCT) observed in M. smegmatis. Intriguingly, no known DCT function was found in M. abscessus chromosome, however, a p-RAW-like genetic element was detected in one of the highly admixed strains.
Taken together, our results strongly suggest that MAB evolution is sporadically punctuated by dramatic genome wide remodelling events. These findings might have far reaching epidemiological consequences for emerging mycobacterial pathogens survey in the context of increasing numbers of rapidly growing mycobacteria and M. tuberculosis co-infections.
Financed by the National Centre for Research and Development under grant No. SP/I/1/77065/10 by the strategic scientific research and experimental development program:
SYNAT - “Interdisciplinary System for Interactive Scientific and Scientific-Technical Information”.