Published on Fri Jul 30 2021

Species-wide phylogenomics of the Staphylococcus aureus agr operon reveals convergent evolution of frameshift mutations

Raghuram, V., Alexander, A. M., Loo, H. Q., Petit, R. A., Goldberg, J. B., Read, T. D.

Staphylococcus aureus is a prominent nosocomial pathogen that causes several life-threatening diseases. The agr (accessory gene regulator) quorum sensing (QS) system is a major regulator of virulence phenotypes. More than five percent of genomes were found to have frameshift mutations in the agr operon.

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Abstract

Staphylococcus aureus is a prominent nosocomial pathogen that causes several life-threatening diseases such as pneumonia and bacteremia. S. aureus modulates expression of its arsenal of virulence factors through sensing and integrating responses to environmental signals. The agr (accessory gene regulator) quorum sensing (QS) system is a major regulator of virulence phenotypes in S. aureus. There are four agr specificity groups each with a different autoinducer peptide sequence (encoded by the agrD gene). Though agr is critical for expression of many toxins, paradoxically, S. aureus strains often have non-functional agr activity due to loss-of-function mutations in the four-gene agr operon. To understand patterns in agr variability across S. aureus, we undertook a species-wide genomic investigation. We developed a software tool (AgrVATE; https://github.com/VishnuRaghuram94/AgrVATE) for typing and detecting frameshift mutations in the agr operon. In an analysis of over 40,000 S. aureus genomes, we showed close association between agr type and S. aureus clonal complex. We also found strong linkage between agrBDC alleles (encoding the peptidase, the autoinducing peptide itself, and the peptide sensor respectively) but not agrA (encoding the -response regulator). More than five percent of genomes were found to have frameshift mutations in the agr operon. Though most mutations occur only once in the entire species, we observed a small number of recurring mutations evolving convergently across different clonal lineages. Phylogenetic patterns suggested that strains with agr frameshifts were evolutionary dead ends. Overall, genomic analysis of agr operon suggests evolution through multiple processes with functional consequences that are not fully understood.