There is growing evidence that genetic diversity in Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the causative agent of tuberculosis, contributes to the outcomes of infection and public health interventions, such as vaccination. Epidemiological studies suggest that among the phylogeographic lineages of M. tuberculosis, strains belonging to a sublineage of Lineage 2 (mL2) are associated with concerning clinical features, including hypervirulence, treatment failure, and vaccine escape. The global expansion and increasing prevalence of this sublineage has been attributed to the selective advantage conferred by these characteristics, yet confounding host and environmental factors make it difficult to identify the bacterial determinants driving these associations in human studies. Here, we developed a molecular barcoding strategy to facilitate high-throughput, experimental phenotyping of M. tuberculosis clinical isolates. This approach allowed us to characterize growth dynamics for a panel of genetically diverse M. tuberculosis strains during infection and after vaccination in the mouse model. We found that mL2 strains exhibit distinct growth dynamics in vivo and are resistant to the immune protection conferred by Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccination. The latter finding corroborates epidemiological observations and demonstrates that mycobacterial features contribute to vaccine efficacy. To investigate the genetic and biological basis of mL2 strains' distinctive phenotypes, we performed variant analysis, transcriptional studies, and genome-wide transposon sequencing. We identified functional genetic changes across multiple stress and host response pathways in a representative mL2 strain that are associated with variants in regulatory genes. These adaptive changes may underlie the distinct clinical characteristics and epidemiological success of this lineage. IMPORTANCE Tuberculosis, caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is a remarkably heterogeneous disease, a feature that complicates clinical care and public health interventions. The contributions of pathogen genetic diversity to this heterogeneity are uncertain, in part due to the challenges of experimentally manipulating M. tuberculosis, a slow-growing, biosafety level 3 organism. To overcome these challenges, we applied a molecular barcoding strategy to a panel of M. tuberculosis clinical isolates. This novel application of barcoding permitted the high-throughput characterization of M. tuberculosis strain growth dynamics and vaccine resistance in the mouse model of infection. Integrating these results with genomic analyses, we uncover bacterial pathways that contribute to infection outcomes, suggesting targets for improved therapeutics and vaccines.
Keywords: BCG; TnSeq; clinical strains; genomics; mycobacterium; tuberculosis; vaccination.