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Knowledge of within-host genetic variation informs studies on transmission dynamics. We studied within-host genetic variation in Neisseria gonorrhoeae over the course of infection and across different anatomical locations. Isolates were obtained during a clinical trial, and isolates from consecutive time points reflected persistent infections after treatment failure. We compared sequence types (STs) and recombination unfiltered- and filtered core genome single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) distances in 65 within-host isolate pairs from the same anatomical location over time-obtained with a median interval of 7 days-and 65 isolate pairs across different anatomical locations at one time point. Isolates with different Multi-Locus Sequence Types (MLST), NG-Sequence Types for Antimicrobial Resistance (NG-STAR) and NG-Multi Antigen Sequence Types (NG-MAST) had a median of 1466 recombination filtered SNPs, whereas a median of 1 SNP was found between isolates with identical STs or a different NG-MAST only. The threshold for differentiating between strains was set at 10 recombination filtered SNPs, showing that isolates from persistent infections could have different NG-MASTs. Antibiotic pressure applied through treatment did not lead to an increase in genetic variation in specific genes or in overall extent of variation, compared to variation across anatomical locations. Instead, within-host genetic variation was proposedly driven by the host immune response, as it was concentrated in genomic regions encoding surface exposed proteins involved in host-microbe interaction. Ultimately, 15/228 (6.5%) between-host pairs contained a single strain, suggesting between-host transmission. However, patient reported data are needed to differentiate within-host persistence from between-host transmission. IMPORTANCE Understanding transmission dynamics of Neisseria gonorrhoeae (Ng) is based on the identification of transmission events. These can be identified by assessing genetic relatedness between Ng isolates, expressed as core genome SNP distances. However, a SNP threshold to differentiate between strains needs to be defined, using knowledge on within- and between-host genetic variation. Here, we assessed within-host genetic variation, using a unique set of within-host Ng isolates from the same anatomical location over time or across different anatomical locations at one time point. The insights in genetic variation that occurred during the infection period contribute to the understanding of infection dynamics. In addition, the obtained knowledge can be used for future research on transmission dynamics and development of public health interventions based on bacterial genomic data.


Jolinda de Korne-Elenbaas, Sylvia M Bruisten, Henry J C de Vries, Alje P van Dam. Within-Host Genetic Variation in Neisseria gonorrhoeae over the Course of Infection. Microbiology spectrum. 2022 Jun 29;10(3):e0031322

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PMID: 35467402

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