Burkholderia mallei (Bm), the causative agent of the predominately equine disease glanders, is a genetically uniform species that is very closely related to the much more diverse species Burkholderia pseudomallei (Bp), an opportunistic human pathogen and the primary cause of melioidosis. To gain insight into the relative lack of genetic diversity within Bm, we performed whole-genome comparative analysis of seven Bm strains and contrasted these with eight Bp strains. The Bm core genome (shared by all seven strains) is smaller in size than that of Bp, but the inverse is true for the variable gene sets that are distributed across strains. Interestingly, the biological roles of the Bm variable gene sets are much more homogeneous than those of Bp. The Bm variable genes are found mostly in contiguous regions flanked by insertion sequence (IS) elements, which appear to mediate excision and subsequent elimination of groups of genes that are under reduced selection in the mammalian host. The analysis suggests that the Bm genome continues to evolve through random IS-mediated recombination events, and differences in gene content may contribute to differences in virulence observed among Bm strains. The results are consistent with the view that Bm recently evolved from a single strain of Bp upon introduction into an animal host followed by expansion of IS elements, prophage elimination, and genome rearrangements and reduction mediated by homologous recombination across IS elements.
Keywords: bacterial evolution; bacterial virulence; comparative genomics; genome erosion.