Rapid host switching in generalist Campylobacter strains erodes the signal for tracing human infections
Bethany L. Dearlove, Alison J. Cody, Ben Pascoe, Guillaume Méric, Daniel J. Wilson, Samuel K. Sheppard
(Submitted on 7 Apr 2015)
Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coli are the biggest causes of bacterial gastroenteritis in the developed world, with human infections typically arising from zoonotic transmission associated with infected meat, especially poultry. Because this organism is not thought to survive well outside of the gut, host associated populations are genetically isolated to varying degrees. Therefore the likely origin of most Campylobacter strains can be determined by host-associated variation in the genome. This is instructive for characterizing the source of human infection at the population level. However, some common strains appear to have broad host ranges, hindering source attribution. Whole genome sequencing has the potential to reveal fine-scale genetic structure associated with host specificity within each of these strains.
We found that rates of zoonotic transmission among animal host species in ST-21, ST-45 and ST-828 clonal complexes were so high that the signal of host association is all but obliterated. We attributed 89% of clinical cases to a chicken source, 10% to cattle and 1% to pig. Our results reveal that common strains of C. jejuni and C. coli infectious to humans are adapted to a generalist lifestyle, permitting rapid transmission between different hosts. Furthermore, they show that the weak signal of host association within these complexes presents a challenge for pinpointing the source of clinical infections, underlining the view that whole genome sequencing, powerful though it is, cannot substitute for intensive sampling of suspected transmission reservoirs.