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NIH-supported scientists investigate a newly emerging staph strain

Genome sequence analysis helps characterize transmissible bacterium

Using genome sequencing and household surveillance, National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists and their colleagues from Columbia University Medical Center and St. George's University of London have pieced together how a newly emerging type of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria has adapted to transmit more easily among humans. Their new study underscores the need for vigilance in surveillance of S. aureus.

A methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) strain known as livestock-associated (LA)-ST398 is a cause of severe infections in people in Europe who have close contact with swine, but the bacterium does not transmit well from person to person. More recently, a variant of LA-ST398 that presently is susceptible to methicillin has emerged as a significant cause of community-associated infections in several countries, including the United States, Canada and China. The new strain primarily infects the skin and soft tissue, but it can cause more severe disease.

Based on samples from 332 households in northern Manhattan, New York, scientists have determined that this new strain, named ST398-NM, efficiently transmits from person to person—in contrast to the transmission characteristics of the livestock-associated strain.

By analyzing and comparing the genomes of LA-ST398 and ST398-NM, the study, led by Anne-Catrin Uhlemann, M.D., Ph.D., at Columbia, charted several ways in which the bacterium has adapted to its hosts. For example, they learned that the human-adapted strain (ST398-NM) contains human-specific immune evasion genes, whereas the livestock-adapted strain does not. They also found that ST398-NM adheres well to human skin, thus increasing its ability to colonize and infect people.

The study authors say it is possible that the ST398-NM strain emerging in northern Manhattan could acquire genes making it resistant to methicillin. Scientists at the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and their colleagues plan to continue global surveillance of ST398, paying close attention to its molecular adaptations. Their work promises to inform the development of new diagnostic and surveillance strategies against this emerging pathogen.

This study on the human-adapted variant of ST398 strain complements a study that a different group of scientists published in mBio on Feb. 21. That study, also supported by NIH, focused on the evolution of the ST398 strain in livestock, including the effect of antibiotic use. Lance Price, Ph.D., and Paul Keim, Ph.D., at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Flagstaff, Ariz., led that study with colleagues from around the world.

A-C Uhlemann et al. Identification of a highly transmissible animal-independent Staphylococcus aureus ST398 with distinct genomic and cell adhesion properties. mBio DOI:10.1128/mBio.00027-12 (2012).

L Price et al. Staphylococcus aureus CC398: Host adaptation and emergence of methicillin resistance in livestock. mBio DOI: 10.1128/mBio.00305-11 (2012).

Frank DeLeo, Ph.D., Acting Chief, Laboratory of Human Bacterial Pathogenesis, NIAID. Dr. DeLeo is an expert in host innate immune interactions with bacteria and is one of the study authors.

To schedule interviews with Dr. DeLeo, please contact Ken Pekoc, (301) 402-1663,

NIAID conducts and supports research—at NIH, throughout the United States, and worldwide—to study the causes of infectious and immune-mediated diseases, and to develop better means of preventing, diagnosing and treating these illnesses. News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

NIH...Turning Discovery Into Health

Ken Pekoc | EurekAlert!
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