Changes in Streptococcus pyogenes causing invasive disease in Portugal: evidence for superantigen gene loss and acquisition

Int J Med Microbiol. 2013 Dec;303(8):505-13. doi: 10.1016/j.ijmm.2013.07.004. Epub 2013 Jul 18.


The emergence of highly virulent and successful Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococci - GAS) clones has been attributed to the exchange of virulence factors by lateral gene transfer mechanisms, which strongly contribute to genomic diversity. We characterized a collection of 191 GAS isolates recovered from normally sterile sites in Portugal during 2006-2009 and compared them to invasive isolates obtained during 2000-2005. Antimicrobial resistance rates did not change significantly between the two periods and were generally low. In 2006-2009, emm1, emm89, emm3, and emm6 represented 60% of the isolates. The chromosomally encoded superantigen (SAg) genes speG and smeZ were present in the majority (>90%) of the isolates, while speJ was found in only 45%. The phage encoded SAgs varied greatly in prevalence (2-53%). The distribution of emm types, pulsed-field gel electrophoresis profiling (PFGE) clusters, and SAg profiles changed significantly between the periods, although there were no statistically supported changes in the prevalence of individual types. While the macrolide susceptible clone emm1-T1-ST28 remained dominant (28%), there was a significant decrease in clonal diversity as indicated by both PFGE profiling and emm typing. This was accompanied by intra-clonal divergence of SAg profiles, which was statistically confirmed for isolates representing emm1, emm28, and emm44. This diversification was associated with the loss and acquisition of SAg genes, carried by phages and of chromosomal origin. These data suggest an ongoing genomic diversification of GAS invasive isolates in Portugal that may contribute to the persistence of clones with improved fitness or virulence.

Keywords: Electrophoresis; Exotoxins; Gel; Invasive infection; Multilocus sequence typing; Pulsed-field; Streptococcal M protein; Streptococcus pyogenes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Antigens, Bacterial / genetics
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins / genetics
  • Carrier Proteins / genetics
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Electrophoresis, Gel, Pulsed-Field
  • Female
  • Gene Deletion
  • Gene Transfer, Horizontal
  • Genetic Variation
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Molecular Epidemiology
  • Molecular Typing
  • Portugal / epidemiology
  • Prevalence
  • Streptococcal Infections / epidemiology*
  • Streptococcal Infections / microbiology*
  • Streptococcus pyogenes / genetics*
  • Streptococcus pyogenes / isolation & purification*
  • Superantigens / genetics*
  • Young Adult


  • Antigens, Bacterial
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins
  • Carrier Proteins
  • Superantigens
  • streptococcal M protein