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Environ Microbiol. 2007 Dec;9(12):3134-42.

High phenotypic diversity in infecting but not in colonizing Staphylococcus aureus populations.

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Institute for Medical Microbiology and Hygiene, University Hospital Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany.


In hostile environments diversity within a bacterial population may be beneficial for the fitness of the microbial community as a whole. Here we analysed the population diversity of Staphylococcus aureus in infecting and colonizing situations. In the study, performed independently in two German centres, the heterogeneity of the S. aureus population was determined by quantifying the occurrence of phenotypic variants (differences in haemolysis, pigmentation, colony morphology) in primary cultures from nose, oropharyngeal and sputum specimens from cystic fibrosis (CF) patients and in nose swabs from healthy S. aureus carriers. The proportion of heterogeneous samples, the number of clearly distinguishable isolates per sample and the qualitative differences between phenotypes was significantly higher in CF sputum specimens than in the other samples. The heterogeneity of the S. aureus population could be correlated with high bacterial densities in the sputum samples. In patients co-infected with Pseudomonas aeruginosa lower S. aureus bacterial loads and less heterogeneity in the S. aureus population were observed. Typing of all S. aureus isolates from heterogeneous samples by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis or spa typing revealed that the bacteria were polyclonal in 30%, monoclonal with minor genetic alterations in 25% or not distinguishable in 69% of the specimens. Some specimens harboured monoclonal and polyclonal variants simultaneously. Importantly, differences in antibiotic susceptibility were detected in phenotypic S. aureus variants within a single specimen. Diversification of a S. aureus population is highly favoured during chronic CF lung infection, supporting the general hypothesis that maintenance of intrahost diversity can be of adaptive value, increasing the fitness of the bacterial community.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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