Background: Francisella tularensis subspecies tularensis and holarctica are pathogenic to humans, whereas the two other subspecies, novicida and mediasiatica, rarely cause disease. To uncover the factors that allow subspecies tularensis and holarctica to be pathogenic to humans, we compared their genome sequences with the genome sequence of Francisella tularensis subspecies novicida U112, which is nonpathogenic to humans.
Results: Comparison of the genomes of human pathogenic Francisella strains with the genome of U112 identifies genes specific to the human pathogenic strains and reveals pseudogenes that previously were unidentified. In addition, this analysis provides a coarse chronology of the evolutionary events that took place during the emergence of the human pathogenic strains. Genomic rearrangements at the level of insertion sequences (IS elements), point mutations, and small indels took place in the human pathogenic strains during and after differentiation from the nonpathogenic strain, resulting in gene inactivation.
Conclusion: The chronology of events suggests a substantial role for genetic drift in the formation of pseudogenes in Francisella genomes. Mutations that occurred early in the evolution, however, might have been fixed in the population either because of evolutionary bottlenecks or because they were pathoadaptive (beneficial in the context of infection). Because the structure of Francisella genomes is similar to that of the genomes of other emerging or highly pathogenic bacteria, this evolutionary scenario may be shared by pathogens from other species.