Comparative Genomics of Mycobacterium avium Complex Reveals Signatures of Environment-Specific Adaptation and Community Acquisition

mSystems. 2021 Oct 26;6(5):e0119421. doi: 10.1128/mSystems.01194-21. Epub 2021 Oct 19.


Nontuberculous mycobacteria, including those in the Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC), constitute an increasingly urgent threat to global public health. Ubiquitous in soil and water worldwide, MAC members cause a diverse array of infections in humans and animals that are often multidrug resistant, intractable, and deadly. MAC lung disease is of particular concern and is now more prevalent than tuberculosis in many countries, including the United States. Although the clinical importance of these microorganisms continues to expand, our understanding of their genomic diversity is limited, hampering basic and translational studies alike. Here, we leveraged a unique collection of genomes to characterize MAC population structure, gene content, and within-host strain dynamics in unprecedented detail. We found that different MAC species encode distinct suites of biomedically relevant genes, including antibiotic resistance genes and virulence factors, which may influence their distinct clinical manifestations. We observed that M. avium isolates from different sources-human pulmonary infections, human disseminated infections, animals, and natural environments-are readily distinguished by their core and accessory genomes, by their patterns of horizontal gene transfer, and by numerous specific genes, including virulence factors. We identified highly similar MAC strains from distinct patients within and across two geographically distinct clinical cohorts, providing important insights into the reservoirs which seed community acquisition. We also discovered a novel MAC genomospecies in one of these cohorts. Collectively, our results provide key genomic context for these emerging pathogens and will facilitate future exploration of MAC ecology, evolution, and pathogenesis. IMPORTANCE Members of the Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC), a group of mycobacteria encompassing M. avium and its closest relatives, are omnipresent in natural environments and emerging pathogens of humans and animals. MAC infections are difficult to treat, sometimes fatal, and increasingly common. Here, we used comparative genomics to illuminate key aspects of MAC biology. We found that different MAC species and M. avium isolates from different sources encode distinct suites of clinically relevant genes, including those for virulence and antibiotic resistance. We identified highly similar MAC strains in patients from different states and decades, suggesting community acquisition from dispersed and stable reservoirs, and we discovered a novel MAC species. Our work provides valuable insight into the genomic features underlying these versatile pathogens.

Keywords: Mycobacterium; Mycobacterium avium complex; comparative genomics; genomic epidemiology; nontuberculous mycobacteria; whole-genome sequencing.