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MBio. 2013 Mar 26;4(2). pii: e00604-12. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00604-12.

Comparative analysis of Chlamydia psittaci genomes reveals the recent emergence of a pathogenic lineage with a broad host range.

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  • 1Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA, USA.


Chlamydia psittaci is an obligate intracellular bacterium. Interest in Chlamydia stems from its high degree of virulence as an intestinal and pulmonary pathogen across a broad range of animals, including humans. C. psittaci human pulmonary infections, referred to as psittacosis, can be life-threatening, which is why the organism was developed as a bioweapon in the 20th century and is listed as a CDC biothreat agent. One remarkable recent result from comparative genomics is the finding of frequent homologous recombination across the genome of the sexually transmitted and trachoma pathogen Chlamydia trachomatis. We sought to determine if similar evolutionary dynamics occurred in C. psittaci. We analyzed 20 C. psittaci genomes from diverse strains representing the nine known serotypes of the organism as well as infections in a range of birds and mammals, including humans. Genome annotation revealed a core genome in all strains of 911 genes. Our analyses showed that C. psittaci has a history of frequently switching hosts and undergoing recombination more often than C. trachomatis. Evolutionary history reconstructions showed genome-wide homologous recombination and evidence of whole-plasmid exchange. Tracking the origins of recombinant segments revealed that some strains have imported DNA from as-yet-unsampled or -unsequenced C. psittaci lineages or other Chlamydiaceae species. Three ancestral populations of C. psittaci were predicted, explaining the current population structure. Molecular clock analysis found that certain strains are part of a clonal epidemic expansion likely introduced into North America by South American bird traders, suggesting that psittacosis is a recently emerged disease originating in New World parrots.

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