Bacteria overcome hurdles to jump between species

Novel study method could lead to new ways of controlling cross-species infections.

December 3, 2019

2 Min Read
Roslin SA species transfer.jpg
The Roslin Institute.

New research has demonstrated that certain bacteria can overcome significant challenges to transfer from one species and flourish in another, according to an announcement from The Roslin Institute in the U.K.

Studies of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause infections in people and animals, have shown how it can rapidly adapt to new species, the institute said.

Scientists used a newly developed model to study how pathogens can transfer from people to sheep.

A team of researchers, including scientists from The Roslin Institute, analyzed the genomes of bacteria of human origin during experimental infection of the mammary glands of sheep, the announcement said.

Continuous feeding of lambs by the ewes resulted in a reduction in the number of bacteria, the institute reported, noting that this also occurred upon transmission of the infection to other sheep.

Overall, this had the effect of diminishing genetic variation — a process known as genetic drift, which limits the capacity for bacteria to adapt to a new habitat.

Despite this challenge, bacteria were able to readily acquire genetic mutations that enabled them to quickly adapt to survive in the new host species, the researchers observed.

"It was remarkable that, in spite of the apparent genetic drift that occurred during infection and after transmissions, we found that the bacteria could adapt to the new host species," Roslin doctoral student Rodrigo Bacigalupe explained.

Infection insights

Roslin reported that the findings shed light on how some bacteria have the ability to switch host species, leading to the emergence of new endemic or epidemic diseases.

Understanding how the genes in bacteria adapt to new species could help inform research towards tackling cross-species infections, the institute said.

"Understanding how bacteria adapt to cause infection in a new species or individual may be key to controlling them. Our study has shown the resilience of bacteria to establish themselves in new environments, despite significant physiological and population-level challenges," Roslin group leader Ross Fitzgerald said.

The research was carried out in collaboration with the University of Glasgow, together with the Instituto Valenciano de Investigaciones Agrarias and the Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria La Fe in Spain. It was published in Science Advances with funding from The Wellcome Trust, the U.K.'s Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council.

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