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For over a century, a fundamental objective in infection biology research has been to understand the molecular processes contributing to the origin and perpetuation of epidemics. Divergent hypotheses have emerged concerning the extent to which environmental events or pathogen evolution dominates in these processes. Remarkably few studies bear on this important issue. Based on population pathogenomic analysis of 1200 Streptococcus pyogenes type emm89 infection isolates, we report that a series of horizontal gene transfer events produced a new pathogenic genotype with increased ability to cause infection, leading to an epidemic wave of disease on at least two continents. In the aggregate, these and other genetic changes substantially remodeled the transcriptomes of the evolved progeny, causing extensive differential expression of virulence genes and altered pathogen:host interaction, including enhanced immune evasion. Our findings delineate the precise molecular genetic changes that occurred and enhance our understanding of the evolutionary processes that contribute to the emergence and persistence of epidemically successful pathogen clones. The data have significant implications for understanding bacterial epidemics and translational research efforts to blunt their detrimental effects.

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