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Pig-borne disease jumped into humans when rearing practices changed

last modified May 25, 2016 10:34 AM
The most virulent strains of Streptococcus suis, the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in adult humans in parts of southeast Asia and in pigs around the world, are likely to have evolved and become widespread in pigs at the same time as changes in rearing practices, according to research from an international consortium published today in the journal Nature Communications.

Almost every pig carries harmless strains of the S. suis bacterium – such strains are known as ‘commensal’ strains. However, a more virulent group of strains of the bacteria also exist, which cause disease in pigs worldwide and are a major driver of antibiotic use for prevention. Increasingly, this group of strains is also implicated in serious human diseases such as meningitis and septicaemia.

In order to understand the genetic basis of disease in S. suis, an international study, led by the Bacterial Respiratory Diseases of Pigs-1 Technology (BRaDP1T) consortium, examined the genomes of 375 clinical samples from pigs and humans from the UK and Vietnam and combined these with data already published on 15 S. suis genome sequences and draft genomes from around the world. They found that the commensal strains and disease-causing strains differed genetically; in particular, the disease-causing strains have between 50 and 100 fewer genes than the commensal strains.

Dr Lucy Weinert from the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, first author of the study, says: “It seems that the loss of genes is associated with causing disease. This is something we see quite often in bacteria, but for reasons that are unclear. One possibility is that  the missing genes are those that hinder the function of newly-acquired virulence factors in the genomes.” Read more..