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Infect Genet Evol. 2012 Mar;12(2):214-26. doi: 10.1016/j.meegid.2012.01.005. Epub 2012 Jan 14.

The evolution of the Escherichia coli phylogeny.

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Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0ES, United Kingdom.


Escherichia coli is familiar to biologists as a classical model system, ubiquitous in molecular biology laboratories around the world. Outside of the laboratory, E. coli strains exist as an almost universal component of the lower-gut flora of humans and animals. Although usually a commensal, E. coli has an alter ego as a pathogen, and is associated with diarrhoeal disease and extra-intestinal infections. The study of E. coli diversity predates the availability of molecular data, with strains initially distinguished by serotyping and metabolic profiling, and genomic diversity illustrated by DNA hybridisation. The quantitative study of E. coli diversity began with the application of multi-locus enzyme electrophoresis (MLEE), and has progressed with the accumulation of nucleotide sequence data, from single genes through multi-locus sequence typing (MLST) to whole genome sequencing. Phylogenetic methods have shed light on the processes of genomic evolution in this extraordinarily diverse species, and revealed the origins of pathogenic E. coli strains, including members of the phylogenetically indistinguishable "genus"Shigella. In May and June 2011, an outbreak of haemorrhagic uraemic syndrome in Germany was linked to a strain of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) O104:H4. Application of high-throughput sequencing technologies allowed the genome and origins of the outbreak strain to be characterised in real time as the outbreak was in progress.

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