The wide geographic distribution of one clade of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the Beijing genotype family, and its genetic homogeneity, suggests that strains belonging to this grouping might have a selective advantage over other M tuberculosis strains. This hypothesis was addressed by reviewing molecular-epidemiological, experimental, and clinical studies. Beijing strains represent about 50% of strains in east Asia and at least 13% of strains worldwide. Their emergence might be linked to escape from BCG vaccination, and to multidrug resistance, which is associated with the Beijing genotype in many areas. Different animal models have shown Beijing strains to be more virulent, and to cause more histopathological changes, higher outgrowth, and increased mortality. At a molecular level, Beijing strains have specific properties in terms of protein and lipid structures and their interaction with the human immune system. Finally, the Beijing genotype has been linked to polymorphisms in immune genes, suggesting the possibility of human-mycobacterial co-evolution. The emergence of the Beijing genotype family might represent an evolutionary response of M tuberculosis to vaccination or antibiotic treatment, with an important negative impact on tuberculosis control. More research is needed to further unravel the mechanisms underlying the emergence of M tuberculosis Beijing genotype strains, and examine the implications for future control strategies.
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