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Estimation of Full-Length TprK Diversity in Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum

By Amin Addetia, Michelle Lin, Quynh Phung, Hong Xie, Meei-Li Huang, Giulia Ciccarese, Ivano Dal Conte, Marco Cusini, Francesco Drago, Lorenzo Giacani, Alex Greninger

Posted 24 Jan 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.01.23.917484

Immune evasion and disease progression of Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum are associated with sequence diversity in the hypervariable, putative outer membrane protein TprK. Previous attempts to study variation within TprK have sequenced at depths insufficient to fully appreciate the hypervariable nature of the protein, failed to establish linkage between the protein's 7 variable regions, or were conducted on strains passed through rabbits. As a consequence, a complete profiling of tprK during infection in the human host is still lacking. Furthermore, prior studies examining how T. pallidum uses its repertoire of genomic donor sites to generate diversity within the V regions of the tprK also yielded a partial understanding of this process, due to the limited number of tprK alleles examined. In this study, we used short- and long-read deep sequencing to directly characterize full-length tprK alleles from T. pallidum collected from early lesions of patients attending two STD clinics in Italy. Our data, combined with recent data available on Chinese T. pallidum strains, show the near complete absence of overlap in TprK sequences among the 41 strains profiled to date. Moreover, our data allowed us to redefine the boundaries of tprK V regions, identify 55 donor sites, and estimate the total number of TprK variants that T. pallidum can potentially generate. Altogether, our results support how T. pallidum TprK antigenic variation system is an unsurmountable obstacle for the human immune system to naturally achieve infection eradication, and reiterate the importance of this mechanism for pathogen persistence in the host.

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