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Host–pathogen associations revealed by genotyping of European strains of Anaplasma phagocytophilum to describe natural endemic cycles

Background: The zoonotic intracellular alpha-proteobacterium Anaplasma phagocytophilum is a tick-transmitted pathogen. The associations between vertebrate reservoirs and vectors are described as wide-ranging, and it was previously shown that the pathogenicity of A. phagocytophilum differs depending on the combination of pathogen variant and infected host species. This leads to the question of whether there are variations in particular gene loci associated with different virulence. Therefore, this study aims at clarifying existing host-variant combinations and detecting possible reservoir hosts. To understand these interactions, a complex toolset for molecular epidemiology, phylogeny and network theory was applied.

Methods: Sequences of up to four gene loci (msp4, msp2, groEL and 16S rRNA) were evaluated for different isolates from variable host species, including, for example, dogs, cattle and deer. Variant typing was conducted for each gene locus individually, and combinations of different gene loci were analysed to gain more detailed information about the genetic plasticity of A. phagocytophilum. Results were displayed as minimum spanning nets and correlation nets.

Results: The highest diversity of variants for all gene loci was observed in roe deer. In cattle, a reduced number of variants for 16S rRNA [only 16S-20(W) and 16S-22(Y)] but multiple variants of msp4 and groEL were found. For dogs, two msp4 variants [m4-20 and m4-2(B/C)] were found to be linked to different variants of the other three gene loci, creating two main combinations of gene loci variants. Cattle are placed centrally in the minimum spanning net analyses, indicating a crucial role in the transmission cycles by possibly bridging the vector-wildlife cycle to infections of humans and domestic animals. The minimum spanning nets confirmed previously described epidemiological cycles of the bacterium in Europe, showing separation of variants originating from wildlife animals only and a set of variants shared by wild and domestic animals.

Conclusions: In this comprehensive study of 1280 sequences, we found a high number of gene variants only occurring in specific hosts. Additionally, different hosts show unique but also shared variant combinations. The use of our four gene loci expand the knowledge of host-pathogen interactions and may be a starting point to predict future spread and infection risks of A. phagocytophilum in Europe.



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