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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Feb 17;101(7):2123-8. Epub 2004 Feb 6.

Genetic diversity and virulence potential of environmental Vibrio cholerae population in a cholera-endemic area.

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Molecular Genetics Laboratory, International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, Dhaka-1212, Bangladesh.


To understand the evolutionary events and possible selection mechanisms involved in the emergence of pathogenic Vibrio cholerae, we analyzed diverse strains of V. cholerae isolated from environmental waters in Bangladesh by direct enrichment in the intestines of adult rabbits and by conventional laboratory culture. Strains isolated by conventional culture were mostly (99.2%) negative for the major virulence gene clusters encoding toxin-coregulated pilus (TCP) and cholera toxin (CT) and were nonpathogenic in animal models. In contrast, all strains selected in rabbits were competent for colonizing infant mice, and 56.8% of these strains carried genes encoding TCP alone or both TCP and CT. Ribotypes of toxigenic O1 and O139 strains from the environment were similar to pandemic strains, whereas ribotypes of non-O1 non-O139 strains and TCP(-) nontoxigenic O1 strains diverged widely from the seventh pandemic O1 and the O139 strains. Results of this study suggest that (i) the environmental V. cholerae population in a cholera-endemic area is highly heterogeneous, (ii) selection in the mammalian intestine can cause enrichment of environmental strains with virulence potential, (iii) pathogenicity of V. cholerae involves more virulence genes than currently appreciated, and (iv) most environmental V. cholerae strains are unlikely to attain a pandemic potential by acquisition of TCP and CT genes alone. Because most of the recorded cholera pandemics originated in the Ganges Delta region, this ecological setting presumably favors extensive genetic exchange among V. cholerae strains and thus promotes the rare, multiple-gene transfer events needed to assemble the critical combination of genes required for pandemic spread.

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