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Comparative genomics reveals molecular evolution of Q fever pathogen
Date:2/2/2009

Blacksburg, Va. Scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Texas A&M Health Center, and the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech have uncovered genetic clues about why some strains of the pathogen Coxiella burnetii are more virulent than others.

The researchers compared the sequences of four different strains of C. burnetii, an intracellular bacterium that can cause acute and chronic Q fever in humans, to build up a comprehensive picture of the genetic architecture and content of the different genomes. The scientists examined C. burnetii strains of differing virulence to unveil clues on the genetic features associated with pathogenicity.

Q fever is considered one of the most infectious diseases in the world since inhalation of a single bacterium alone is sufficient to kick-start infection. Infection in humans typically results from contact with infected animals such as cattle, goats, and sheep. The C. burnetii bacterium targets macrophages white blood cells in the body that usually provide protection against invading pathogens. The pathogen has the remarkable ability to replicate in a lysosome-like vacuole of macrophages, an extremely harsh intracellular environment that usually protects the body from infection by breaking down invading pathogens. The chronic form of Q fever in humans is rare but can lead to heart infections that are usually deadly if untreated.

Dr. Robert Heinzen, head of the Coxiella Pathogenesis Section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, remarked: "Our results suggest that mobile genetic elements have played a major role in the evolution and function of the C. burnetii genome. Recombination between insertion sequence elements or jumping genes appears to have brought about large-scale generation of non-functional genes, a change that may be associated with a more pathogenic lifestyle."

In the study,
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Contact: Barry Whyte
whyte@vbi.vt.edu
540-231-1767
Virginia Tech
Source:Eurekalert

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