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Infect Genet Evol. 2011 Aug;11(6):1218-24. doi: 10.1016/j.meegid.2011.05.013. Epub 2011 May 27.

Bacillus anthracis: molecular taxonomy, population genetics, phylogeny and patho-evolution.

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Institute of Veterinary Bacteriology, Vetsuisse Faculty, University of Bern, Länggassstrasse 122, Postfach, CH-3001 Bern, Switzerland.


Bacillus anthracis, the etiological agent of anthrax, manifests a particular bimodal lifestyle. This bacterial species alternates between short replication phases of 20-40 generations that strictly require infection of the host, normally causing death, interrupted by relatively long, mostly dormant phases as spores in the environment. Hence, the B. anthracis genome is highly homogeneous. This feature and the fact that strains from nearly all parts of the world have been analysed for canonical single nucleotide polymorphisms (canSNPs) and variable number tandem repeats (VNTRs) has allowed the development of molecular epidemiological and molecular clock models to estimate the age of major diversifications in the evolution of B. anthracis and to trace the global spread of this pathogen, which was mostly promoted by movement of domestic cattle with settlers and by international trade of contaminated animal products. From a taxonomic and phylogenetic point of view, B. anthracis is a member of the Bacillus cereus group. The differentiation of B. anthracis from B. cereus sensu stricto, solely based on chromosomal markers, is difficult. However, differences in pathogenicity clearly differentiate B. anthracis from B. cereus and are marked by the strict presence of virulence genes located on the two virulence plasmids pXO1 and pXO2, which both are required by the bacterium to cause anthrax. Conversely, anthrax-like symptoms can also be caused by organisms with chromosomal features that are more closely related to B. cereus, but which carry these virulence genes on two plasmids that largely resemble the B. anthracis virulence plasmids.

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