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Antimicrobial exposure in sexual networks drives divergent evolution in modern gonococci

By Leonor Sánchez-Busó, Daniel Golparian, Jukka Corander, Yonatan H Grad, Makoto Ohnishi, Rebecca Flemming, Julian Parkhill, Stephen D. Bentley, Magnus Unemo, Simon R Harris

Posted 31 May 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/334847 (published DOI: 10.1038/s41564-019-0501-y)

The sexually transmitted pathogen Neisseria gonorrhoeae is regarded as being on the way to becoming an untreatable superbug. Despite its clinical importance, little is known about its emergence and evolution, and how this corresponds with the introduction of antimicrobials. We present a genome-based phylogeographic analysis of 419 gonococcal isolates from across the globe. Results indicate that modern gonococci originated in Europe or Africa as late as the 16th century and subsequently disseminated globally. We provide evidence that the modern gonococcal population has been shaped by antimicrobial treatment of sexually transmitted and other infections, leading to the emergence of two major lineages with different evolutionary strategies. The well-described multi-resistant lineage is associated with high rates of homologous recombination and infection in high-risk sexual networks where antimicrobial treatment is frequent. A second, multi-susceptible lineage associated with heterosexual networks, where asymptomatic infection is more common, was also identified, with potential implications for infection control.

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