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Closely related Campylobacter jejuni strains from different sources reveal a generalist rather than a specialist lifestyle

BACKGROUND: Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coli are human intestinal pathogens of global importance. Zoonotic transmission from livestock animals or animal-derived food is the likely cause for most of these infections. However, little is known about their general and host-specific mechanisms of colonization, or virulence and pathogenicity factors. In certain hosts, Campylobacter species colonize persistently and do not cause disease, while they cause acute intestinal disease in humans. RESULTS: Here, we investigate putative host-specificity using phenotypic characterization and genome-wide analysis of genetically closely related C. jejuni strains from different sources. A collection of 473 fresh Campylobacter isolates from Germany was assembled between 2006 and 2010 and characterized using MLST. A subset of closely related C. jejuni strains of the highly prevalent sequence type ST-21 was selected from different hosts and isolation sources. PCR typing of strain-variable genes provided evidence that some genes differed between these strains. Furthermore, phenotypic variation of these strains was tested using the following criteria: metabolic variation, protein expression patterns, and eukaryotic cell interaction. The results demonstrated remarkable phenotypic diversity within the ST-21 group, which however did not correlate with isolation source. Whole genome sequencing was performed for five ST-21 strains from chicken, human, bovine, and food sources, in order to gain insight into ST-21 genome diversity. The comparisons showed extensive genomic diversity, primarily due to recombination and gain of phage-related genes. By contrast, no genomic features associated with isolation source or host were identified. CONCLUSIONS: The genome information and phenotypic data obtained in vitro and in a chicken infection model provided little evidence of fixed adaptation to a specific host. Instead, the dominant C. jejuni ST-21 appeared to be characterized by phenotypic flexibility and high genetic microdiversity, revealing properties of a generalist. High genetic flexibility might allow generalist variants of C. jejuni to reversibly express diverse fitness factors in changing environments.

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