Genetic import and phenotype specific alleles associated with hyper-invasion in Campylobacter jejuni
- Abiyad Baig†1, 4,
- Alan McNally†1,
- Steven Dunn1,
- Konrad H. Paszkiewicz2,
- Jukka Corander3 and
- Georgina Manning1Email author
© Baig et al. 2015
Received: 22 June 2015
Accepted: 15 October 2015
Published: 24 October 2015
Campylobacter jejuni is a major zoonotic pathogen, causing gastroenteritis in humans. Invasion is an important pathogenesis trait by which C. jejuni causes disease. Here we report the genomic analysis of 134 strains to identify traits unique to hyperinvasive isolates.
A total of 134 C. jejuni genomes were used to create a phylogenetic tree to position the hyperinvasive strains. Comparative genomics lead to the identification of mosaic capsule regions. A pan genome approach led to the discovery of unique loci, or loci with unique alleles, to the hyperinvasive strains.
Phylogenetic analysis showed that the hyper-invasive phenotype is a generalist trait. Despite the fact that hyperinvasive strains are only distantly related based on the whole genome phylogeny, they all possess genes within the capsule region with high identity to capsule genes from C. jejuni subsp. doylei and C. lari. In addition there were genes unique to the hyper-invasive strains with identity to non-C. jejuni genes, as well as allelic variants of mainly pathogenesis related genes already known in the other C. jejuni. In particular, the sequence of flagella genes, flgD-E and flgL were highly conserved amongst the hyper-invasive strains and divergent from sequences in other C. jejuni. A novel cytolethal distending toxin (cdt) operon was also identified as present in all hyper-invasive strains in addition to the classic cdt operon present in other C. jejuni.
Overall, the hyper-invasive phenotype is strongly linked to the presence of orthologous genes from other Campylobacter species in their genomes, notably within the capsule region, in addition to the observed association with unique allelic variants in flagellar genes and the secondary cdt operon which is unlikely under random sharing of accessory alleles in separate lineages.
Campylobacter jejuni is the major cause of gastroenteritis in humans worldwide. It is a self-limiting disease with the symptoms varying from watery diarrhoea with no inflammation to mucous containing bloody diarrhoea . A rare but life-threatening consequence of C. jejuni infection is the neurological disorder Guillain Barré syndrome . Campylobacter infections are mainly transmitted through poultry and related products, but unpasteurised milk products, contaminated water and other food products have also been implicated as potential sources [1, 3, 4].
C. jejuni is believed to be an invasive pathogen and invasion of, or translocation across, the intestinal epithelium is thought to disrupt the gut lining and bring about an inflammatory response resulting in diarrhoea. The presence of blood and mucous in the stool in some patients provides evidence of the invasive ability of C. jejuni . Several studies have used in vitro cultured cell lines of human and non-human origin to investigate C. jejuni interaction with host cells [6–9]. In addition, in vivo animal infection models including primates have been used to study the role of invasion and adhesion in C. jejuni pathogenesis [10–13]. It is apparent that C. jejuni’s ability to adhere to and invade epithelial cells is influenced by the infection model or the type of intestinal cell line used [5–7]. It is also strain dependent, often influenced by the severity of the clinical symptoms . One previous study quantitatively classified the invasion potential of C. jejuni strains isolated from clinical, poultry and environmental sources as hyper, high or low using an in vitro invasion assay with the hyper-invasive group consisting of a greater proportion of clinical isolates compared to isolates from other sources . Further analysis of one of these hyper-invasive strains, 01/51, led to the identification of a number of genes associated with the hyper-invasive phenotype , and in particular that of the lipooligosaccharide (LOS) biosynthesis gene, cj1136 .
Surface polysaccharides including LOS and capsule have been implicated in adherence and invasion of epithelial cells and in an in vitro ferret model of infection [18–21]. C. jejuni was only reported as having a capsule once the very first genome sequence was completed in 2000, and it was reported to be the major determinant of the Penner serotyping scheme [18, 22]. The capsular polysaccharide (CPS) region in C. jejuni in general has a similar structure to that in other organisms and is composed of three regions: two conserved regions encoding the proteins involved with assembly and transport which flank the central variable region composed of the genes involved in polysaccharide biosynthesis. The CPS region varies in size from 15 to 34 kbp with the central variable region consisting of 11–34 ORFs . Recently, mosaicism in the CPS locus was reported with the presence of CPS genes elsewhere on the genome of C. jejuni strain X that were thought to add to the antigenic variability of the CPS . C. jejuni capsules are known to contain O-methyl phosphoramidate (MeOPN) modifications which in C. jejuni NCTC11168 are synthesised by the products of cj1415c-1418c . These genes, along with cj1419c and cj1420c have homologs in 61 % of the published CPS loci available . The MeOPN modification of the CPS was shown to have a role in virulence in the Galleria mellonella model  and more recently loss of the MeOPN modification was shown to increase invasion into Caco-2 cells and decrease resistance to killing by serum . A number of genes associated with heptose biosynthesis (hddC, gmhA, hddA and dmhA) have also been reported as being conserved amongst the CPS region in C. jejuni.
In this study we have investigated the group of hyper-invasive C. jejuni isolates at the whole genome level. We reveal mosaicism in the CPS region and elsewhere in the genome with the apparent import of genes from C. jejuni subsp. doylei, C. lari and C. coli which may contribute to the hyper-invasive phenotype of these strains. We also show that hyper-invasive strains do not belong to a defined lineage but are phylogenetically distributed across the species. However, the hyper-invasive strains all share identical gene sequences, or alleles, in a number of loci including key flagella genes and a second cdt operon not reported before in C. jejuni, indicating that these loci are strongly associated with the hyper-invasive phenotype.
Hyper-invasive strains are distributed across the C. jejuni phylogeny
List of strains used for pan-genome analysis in our study
Hyper-invasive clinical isolate
(Fearnley et al. 2008) 
Low invasive reference strain
(Fearnley et al. 2008) 
Low invasive Pig isolate
Evidence of genetic import from C. lari and C. doylei in the capsular polysaccharide region of hyper-invasive strains
Core genome analysis revealed a number of hyper-invasive unique genes with similarity to genes from other Campylobacter species
List of loci identified as associated with Hyper-invasive C. jejuni isolates
BLAST identity results
Low identity across Campylobacter genus
Central portion unique
No orthologs found
Central portion unique
N terminal unique
Flagellar hook protein
Central portion unique
No Orthologs found
No Orthologs found
Low identity across Campylobacter genus
Orthologs in C. coli and Helicobacter spp.
Low identity across Campylobacter genus
Single ortholog in C. coli
Putative meticillin resistance
High identity across Campylobacter genus
Single ortholog in C. coli
No orthologs found
Cj1136 LPS biosynthesis
Unique acetyl transferase domains
Single ortholog in C. coli
fhaA – fhaB
Low identity orthologs in C. coli and C. fetus
CdtA_2 – Cj0151_01598
Putative CDT operon
Orthologs to cdt operon of C. lari and C. doylei
Single ortholog in C. coli
Capsule sugar transferase
Low identity to C. lari ortholog
Interestingly, there was variability in sequence of some well-defined C.jejuni virulence genes with alleles conserved in all hyper-invasive strains. Most striking was a set of genes identified as a second cdt operon by BLASTx comparison. The cdtA, B and C genes showed 81 % similarity to gene BAJ52735 from C. lari, 81 % similarity to BAJ52756 from C. lari, and 83 % similarity to BAJ52757 from C. lari respectively. The secondary cdt operon was present in addition to the classic cdt operon found in abundance across the species. A visual comparison of the cdt loci identical to that performed for the capsule locus was undertaken. The nucleotide sequence similarity levels of 60–80 % suggest the secondary cdt operon is a paralog of the classical operon. However the secondary cdt operon showed more similarity at a phylogenetic level to the classical C. jejuni cdt operon than those of C. jejuni subsp. doylei and C. lari, and the orientation of the genes was in reverse to the classical cdt operon. (Additional file 1: Figure S1).
To confirm that this allele sharing between the hyper-invasive strains was not a random event, we determined the likelihood of any given gene allele being shared between strains belonging to the three phylogenetic clades containing the hyper-invasive strains (clades marked in red in Fig. 1). A pan-genome matrix of all strains belonging to the three clades was created in LS-BSR and the number of alleles shared between these three clades measured. A total of 1551 genetic loci were compared and of those 53 shared an identical allele across the three clades containing hyper-invasive isolates, giving a probability of random allele sharing between these clades of 0.038. This provides strong statistical support that the cdt and flagella gene alleles shared between the hyper-invasive strains are not random and are associated with the shared phenotype of hyper-invasion.
Despite enormous research efforts and a significant body of literature examining the pathogenesis of C. jejuni, the virulence mechanisms of this highly diverse bacterial species remain somewhat enigmatic. A previous population phenotype study, uncovered very large diversity in the levels to which environmental and clinical isolates of C. jejuni invaded cultured intestinal epithelial cells in vitro . The existence of isolates showing a hyper-invasive phenotype raised the possibility that a sub-population of C. jejuni exists which may cause a more invasive clinical disease . Furthermore, the hyper-invasive strain 01/51 was previously studied by transposon and targeted mutagenesis and a number of genes involved in the hyper-invasive phenotype of this strain were identified .
In this study, we performed a comprehensive genomic analysis of all six isolates previously shown to display the highest levels of invasion an in vitro assay . To place our results in the context of the wider C. jejuni population, we utilised the comprehensive genome sequence data produced by Sheppard et al. , investigating the ecology of C. jejuni lineages. The resulting whole genome phylogeny clearly showed the hyper-invasive phenotype is a trait that has been randomly acquired across distinct lineages. Three of our six hyper-invasive strains belong to the clonal complex 21, one of the most common host-generalist lineages of C. jejuni  which has been shown to contain low and hyper-invasive strains . As such studies of genotypic and phenotypic traits associated with propensity to human pathogenesis have identified loci or traits that are phylogenetically distributed across the species .
Our previous research using DNA microarray showed that the hyper-invasive strain 01/51, lacked many capsule genes found in the other C. jejuni strains sequenced at that time (data not shown). A gene homologous to cj1136 in C. jejuni NCTC11168, encoding for a glycosyltransferase with a role in the modification of LOS was shown to be essential for the hyper-invasive phenotype of C. jejuni 01/51 . The capsule region in C. jejuni is postulated to play an important role in adhesion, invasion and increased virulence in surrogate infection models . Owing to the importance of surface related structures in the pathogenesis of C. jejuni, we decided to investigate the capsule locus in detail in our hyper-invasive strains. Our data showed a high degree of variability in capsule locus architecture across the hyper-invasive isolates, perhaps not surprising given the phylogenetic distance between them, though interestingly the differences in architecture between the ST21-complex hyper-invasive isolates were just as great as they were across the more distantly related isolates. Despite this variability, there was a conservation of capsule locus genes with high similarity to genes found in C. jejuni subsp. doylei, C. coli and C. lari. Interspecies recombination has been shown to be a frequent event in the Campylobacter genus to the extent that it has blurred the species boundary in some lineages . However, there are no reports in the literature of this being associated with a specific alteration in an important phenotype such as host-cell interaction. Wu et al. recently noted the similarity in the CPS locus of the hyper-virulent C. jejuni strain IA3902 and genes in C. lari and C. jejuni subsp. doylei, the latter frequently associated with bacteraemia [36, 37]. It has to be noted that there is limited data definitively linking these genes with the hyper-invasive phenotype with only one of our previous transposon mutants occurring in this locus . However, the level of variability in the capsule locus suggests that the association between genotype and phenotype in this region is more complex than would be detected by classical single-gene targeted mutagenesis experiments. It may be that different combinations of genes can lead to an antigenically or structurally similar final capsule that confers the phenotype, but this can only be hypothesised when a robust study on the relationship between capsule genetics and final produced capsule is performed. In addition, the capsule locus of our 01/51 strains is completely identical to that found in the reference genome of C. jejuni IA3092. These two isolates are phylogenetically distant at the whole genome level, but C. jejuni IA3902 is classified as a hyper-virulent veterinary isolate of C. jejuni having been identified as the causative agent of highly aggressive infection in sheep resulting in abortive pregnancy . Interestingly, despite the identical CPS locus in these two strains they differ in their Penner serotype with C. jejuni IA3902 having a serotype of HS:1,8  and C. jejuni 01/51 with HS4 , confirming the fact that the CPS is not the sole determinant of the Penner serotyping scheme.
Further investigation into the pan-genome of the hyper-invasive C. jejuni isolates compared to a selection of low-invasive C. jejuni isolates, using the LS-BSR suite of tools identified a number of other loci associated with hyper-invasion. Such an approach has been successfully applied to identify genes associated with niche restriction in cattle-associated C. jejuni lineages that was also experimentally verified . The genes found were involved with glycosylation of surface moieties and genes with hypothetical function. A LPS modification gene, cj1136, which was previously identified as being involved in the hyper-invasive phenotype of strain C. jejuni 01/51, by transposon and targeted mutagenesis was among the genes identified in our study, validating our analysis . A large number of the loci also showed high identity with genes in C. jejuni subsp. doylei, C. coli and C. lari providing more weight to the suggestion that inter-species introgression of loci is strongly associated with the hyper-invasive phenotype.
Of most interest is our finding that the hyper-invasive strains carried specific alleles of flagella genes and the virulence associated cytolethal distending toxin genes. The phylogenetic analysis of these loci across the C. jejuni species provides strong evidence that these alleles are significantly associated with hyper-invasion. The flagella of C. jejuni have long been associated with virulence and invasion. Motility has been shown to be essential for cellular invasion  and flagella are also thought to act as the delivery machinery for the Type III secretion system Cia effector proteins which have been shown to facilitate invasion by C. jejuni [40, 41]. The flgK, E, and L genes identified in our screen all encode flagella basal body apparatus proteins suggesting that any form of antigenic variation in flagella in the hyper-invasive strains is unlikely. However, the structural or functional effects that these hyper-invasive specific alleles may have on flagella merits further detailed investigation. All previous transposon mutants in the flagella region of hyper-invasive strain 01/51 were discounted from further analysis due to the well-documented link between invasion and motility and re-characterising mutants in this region will allow us to further probe the link between hyper-invasion specific flagella behaviour and the invasive phenotype.
The most striking hyper-invasion associated allele is that of the secondary putative cdt, with all the hyper-invasive isolates containing cdt alleles which form a distinct secondary clade from all other C. jejuni alleles discovered to date. The cytolethal distending toxin has been suggested to be involved in modulating cytokine secretion by infected host cells and assist in intracellular survival of C. jejuni [42, 43]. However, clinical isolates have been discovered with natural deletion mutations in the cdt operon, and analysis of human sera suggests the CDT toxin is strongly immunogenic . The secondary cdt allele associated with our hyper-invasive strains appears ancestral to the C. jejuni variants but is present in addition to the classic cdt operon found throughout the species suggesting it may be maintained in these strains for a defined purpose. BLASTx analysis of the entire non-redundant database identified just a single C. jejuni ortholog in strain 1336  and no matching alleles for any loci in the C. jejuni BigsDB database. A detailed molecular analysis of these secondary cdt operon genes is now required to unravel their role in the hyper-invasion phenotype and their origin in these isolates.
Here we present a comprehensive genomic analysis of a group of C. jejuni isolates previously shown by our group to exhibit a hyper-invasive phenotype in vitro. Our data suggests that genetic import from Campylobacter species other than C. jejuni is strongly associated with this phenotype. In particular, the highly variable capsule region displays patterns of genetic import from C. jejuni. subsp. doylei and C. lari. We also show that many loci identified as unique to the hyper-invasive isolates in a C. jejuni pan-genome analysis are orthologs of genes found in the other Campylobacter species. Finally, we show significant association between specific alleles of flagella and cdt genes and the hyper-invasive phenotype. Our data provides a targeted framework with which to further understand important phenotypic variations across the C. jejuni population.
The sequence data generated as part of this study can be found in the ENA (http://www.ebi.ac.uk/ena/data/view/PRJEB9504). The sequence data from the Sheppard et al. study can be found here: http://datadryad.org/resource/doi:10.5061/dryad.hk860?show=full.
Bacterial strains and growth conditions
A list of strains used in this study is provided in Table 1. All Campylobacter stocks were maintained at −80 °C as 1 ml aliquots in 20 % (v/v) glycerol in Muller Hinton (Oxoid) broth. The Campylobacter strains were routinely sub-cultured on mCCDA (modified Campylobacter blood free selective agar base, Oxoid) grown for 48 h at 37 °C in a microaerobic atmosphere (10 % CO2, 5 % O2, 85 % N2 v/v) in gas jars containing a CampyGen® pack (Oxoid) or in an anaerobic workstation (Don Whitley scientific, UK).
The Qiagen genomic DNA extraction kit (Midi) (Qiagen, Crawley, UK) was used for the genomic DNA. Isolates 01/10 and 01/51 were sequenced on the Illumina Genome Analyzer IIx platform. Isolate 01/51 was dual sequenced, also on the Roche 454 platform. The 454 sequencing was performed to 12 x coverage of the C. jejuni 01/51 genome. The remaining isolates were sequenced on the Illumina HiSeq2500 platform by 150 bp Paired-end sequencing in a single multiplex run.
Genome assembly & analysis
The combined data for isolate 01/51 was used to create an improved quality draft genome of a hyper-invasive isolate. The 454 sequence data was assembled using Newbler software, and the Illumina data was then mapped against the draft assembly using PAGIT . For genomes sequenced on the Illumina platform, de novo assembly was performed using Velvet  and corrected using PAGIT . The annotation of the reference strain C. jejuni RM1221 was transferred onto the un-annotated assembled sequences using the Rapid Annotation Transfer Tool (RATT) implemented in PAGIT. GLIMMER  prediction was used to identify ORFs that were unique to the sequenced genome. These ORFs were annotated by BLAST searching the NCBI BLASTx tools.
Core genome phylogeny was determined for the strains listed in Table 1, and the C. jejuni genome data set previously produced by Sheppard et al. . The core genome alignment and maximum likelihood phylogeny was determined using the parsnp programme implemented in Harvest suite of tools , resulting in a core genome of 733,991 bp. The resulting phylogenetic tree was visualised in FigTree. Phylogenetic analysis of flagella genes was performed by extracting the nucleotide sequence of loci from the core-genome phylogeny and determining a maximum likelihood phylogeny in Fasttree . Phylogenetic analysis of the cdt loci was performed by downloading the nucleotide sequences of all available cdtA alleles from the Campylobacter BigsDB site (http://pubmlst.org/campylobacter/) and aligning by Muscle in SeaView before determining a maximum likelihood phylogeny with Fasttree. All phylogenetic trees were visualised in FigTree.
Comparison of CPS region
The nucleotide sequence of the capsule locus, spanning kpsS to kpsM, from all six hyper-invasive strains and the reference strains of C. jejuni NCTC11168, 81116, IA3902, C. jejuni subsp. doyeli 26697 and C. lari RM2100 were extracted from their genome sequences. These nucleotide sequences were used to perform BLASTn comparisons and visualised as multiple alignments using EasyFig . The putative function of CDS within the capsule regions was determined by BLASTx against the NCBI non-redundant database.
Pan-genome and identification of hyper-invasion associated loci
A pan-genome of the isolates listed in Table 1 was constructed using LS-BSR . The genomes were then categorised into hyper-invasive and non-hyper-invasive and unique loci identified using the accompanying compareBSR.py script. All unique loci were identified by BLASTx analysis against the NCBI non-redundant database and CampyDB. To measure the level of allele sharing between lineages containing hyper-invasive strains, a pan-genome of all isolates belonging to the three clades containing hyper-invasive strains was constructed in LS-BSR. The number of alleles shared across the three identified clades was measured by identity score.
This work was funded by an Nottingham Trent University, Vice Chancellor's funded studentship awarded to AB. The 454 sequencing was conducted by University of Birmingham sequencing service.
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