Behind the bacterium of one thousand and one variants

Posted on June 8, 2023   by Kacper Kurzyp

Kacper Kurzyp takes us behind the scenes of his latest publication 'Bacterium of one thousand and one variants: genetic diversity of Neisseria gonorrhoeae pathogenicity' published in Microbial Genomics.

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Hello! My name is Kacper Kurzyp, and I am a second year DPhil (PhD) student at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at University of Oxford, UK. My research focuses on the ways that bacteria, especially Gram-negative bacteria, interact with human innate immune systems and how we can modify this interaction to combat resistant infections. This is of growing importance as bacteria are gaining antibiotic resistance at a rapid rate. Novel approaches to combat infections are therefore needed.

Together with Dr. Odile Harrison at Oxford Population Health, University of Oxford, we have written a review entitled “Bacterium of one thousand and one variants: genetic diversity of Neisseria gonorrhoeae pathogenicity”. It focuses on Neisseria gonorrhoeae, a Gram-negative bacterium that causes the sexually transmitted infection, gonorrhoea. Classic gonorrhoea is only one of several disease manifestations of gonococcal infection; many are yet to be researched in depth. A striking aspect of this bacterium is its genetics – it is able to readily share genetic information across the species using natural transformation and plasmid conjugation, which, combined with other sources of genetic variation such as phase variation, results in a rapidly mobile and variable genome. Links between such variation and different disease manifestations, while investigated to a varying extent, needed to be summarized in accessible form which is what our review addresses.

The field of gonococcal host-pathogen interactions is of growing interest in recent years. While the review did not have a specific hypothesis, the field would benefit from an up to date, concise summary of how the main virulence factors are impacted by genetic variation, and how these affect different disease manifestations.

In our review, we highlight a database called PubMLST. It contains several thousands of annotated bacterial genome sequences, including that of N. gonorrhoeae, with associated metadata such as disease manifestation which is the focus of our review. A surprise we encountered during the preparation of our review was the degree of skew in genomic sequences in databases such as PubMLST. For example, while we expected to find a limited number of isolates from ophthalmia neonatorum cases, we did not expect to find only a single properly annotated study of this important gonorrhoea manifestation. We therefore encourage researchers to ensure more representative samples become more widely available for analysis in the near future.

We hope that our review will introduce new researchers to the gonococcal field by providing a comprehensive summary of the main virulence factors, and increase interest in host-pathogen interactions of this bacterium. Summarising what is known on the variation of virulence factors will help direct research into things such as therapeutics or vaccines, with the intention being targeting conserved structures that are necessary for causing disease.