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Bacterial Identity Crisis

Researchers probe the genetics of a group of bacteria known to extensively swap DNA sequences with other species—blurring the species boundaries.

By | November 9, 2011

Neisseria with piliFLICKR, AJC1

Researchers are starting to characterize how populations of Neisseria bacteria exchange genes, including virulence and antibiotic resistance genes that could help the bugs become more pathogenic, according to a study published today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

The Gram-negative bacteria, which colonize the mucosal membranes of mammals, have been difficult to genotypically classifying in the past. Because of their propensity to swap DNA with other bacterial species and populations through homologous gene recombination, it has been hard to define species boundaries among bacterial strains that have had extensive contact with other bugs—a difficulty which earned Neisseria the descriptor of “fuzzy species” back in 2005.

In the new study, researchers probed the frequency of inter-species recombination among several Neisseria strains and found several hybrid strains that contain DNA sequences from multiple species. Specifically, they found hybrids of Neisseria meningitides, which is known to cause meningitis in humans, and N. lactamica, which commonly colonizes the nasopharynx of infants and young children.

The extensive recombination identified in these species could be of concern, given the ease of transfer of virulence and antibiotic resistance genes to pathogenic bacteria such as N. meningitides. The results “may have considerable biological implications concerning distribution of novel resistance elements and meningococcal vaccine development,” the authors wrote.

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