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Bacterial genomics reveal the complex epidemiology of an emerging pathogen in arctic and boreal ungulates

November 1, 2016

Northern ecosystems are currently experiencing unprecedented ecological change, largely driven by a rapidly changing climate. Pathogen range expansion, and emergence and altered patterns of infectious disease, are increasingly reported in wildlife at high latitudes. Understanding the causes and consequences of shifting pathogen diversity and host-pathogen interactions in these ecosystems is important for wildlife conservation, and for indigenous populations that depend on wildlife. Among the key questions are whether disease events are associated with endemic or recently introduced pathogens, and whether emerging strains are spreading throughout the region. In this study, we used a phylogenomic approach to address these questions of pathogen endemicity and spread for Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae, an opportunistic multi-host bacterial pathogen associated with recent mortalities in arctic and boreal ungulate populations in North America. We isolated E. rhusiopathiae from carcasses associated with large-scale die-offs of muskoxen in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and from contemporaneous mortality events and/or population declines among muskoxen in northwestern Alaska and caribou and moose in western Canada. Bacterial genomic diversity differed markedly among these locations; minimal divergence was present among isolates from muskoxen in the Canadian Arctic, while in caribou and moose populations, strains from highly divergent clades were isolated from the same location, or even from within a single carcass. These results indicate that mortalities among northern ungulates are not associated with a single emerging strain of E. rhusiopathiae, and that alternate hypotheses need to be explored. Our study illustrates the value and limitations of bacterial genomic data for discriminating between ecological hypotheses of disease emergence, and highlights the importance of studying emerging pathogens within the broader context of environmental and host factors.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2016
Title Bacterial genomics reveal the complex epidemiology of an emerging pathogen in arctic and boreal ungulates
DOI 10.3389/fmicb.2016.01759
Authors Taya L. Forde, Karin Orsel, Ruth N. Zadoks, Roman Biek, Layne G. Adams, Sylvia L. Checkley, Tracy Davison, Jeroen De Buck, Mathieu Dumond, Brett T. Elkin, Laura Finnegan, Bryan J. Macbeth, Cait Nelson, Amanda Niptanatiak, Shane Sather, Helen M. Schwantje, Frank van der Meer, Susan J. Kutz
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Frontiers in Microbiology
Series Number
Index ID 70186297
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology WTEB

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