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Nucleotide and phylogenetic analyses of the Chlamydia trachomatis ompA gene indicates it is a hotspot for mutation


Abstract Background Serovars of the human pathogen Chlamydia trachomatis occupy one of three specific tissue niches. Genomic analyses indicate that the serovars have a phylogeny congruent with their pathobiology and have an average substitution rate of less than one nucleotide per kilobase. In contrast, the gene that determines serovar specificity, ompA, has a phylogenetic association that is not congruent with tissue tropism and has a degree of nucleotide variability much higher than other genomic loci. The ompA gene encodes the major surface-exposed antigenic determinant, and the observed nucleotide diversity at the ompA locus is thought to be due to recombination and host immune selection pressure. The possible contribution of a localized increase in mutation rate, however, has not been investigated. Results Nucleotide diversity and phylogenetic relationships of the five constant and four variable domains of the ompA gene, as well as several loci surrounding ompA, were examined for each serovar. The loci flanking the ompA gene demonstrated that nucleotide diversity increased monotonically as ompA is approached and that their gene trees are not congruent with either ompA or tissue tropism. The variable domains of the ompA gene had a very high level of non-synonymous change, which is expected as these regions encode the surface-exposed epitopes and are under positive selection. However, the synonymous changes are clustered in the variable regions compared to the constant domains; if hitchhiking were to account for the increase in synonymous changes, these substitutions should be more evenly distributed across the gene. Recombination also cannot entirely account for this increase as the phylogenetic relationships of the constant and variable domains are congruent with each other. Conclusions The high number of synonymous substitutions observed within the variable domains of ompA appears to be due to an increased mutation rate within this region of the genome, whereas the increase in nucleotide substitution rate and the lack of phylogenetic congruence in the regions flanking ompA are characteristic motifs of gene conversion. Together, the increased mutation rate in the ompA gene, in conjunction with gene conversion and positive selection, results in a high degree of variability that promotes host immune evasion.

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