Pathogenicity islands of virulent bacteria: structure, function and impact on microbial evolution

Mol Microbiol. 1997 Mar;23(6):1089-97. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2958.1997.3101672.x.


Virulence genes of pathogenic bacteria, which code for toxins, adhesins, invasins or other virulence factors, may be located on transmissible genetic elements such as transposons, plasmids or bacteriophages. In addition, such genes may be part of particular regions on the bacterial chromosomes, termed 'pathogenicity islands' (Pais). Pathogenicity islands are found in Gram-negative as well as in Gram-positive bacteria. They are present in the genome of pathogenic strains of a given species but absent or only rarely present in those of non-pathogenic variants of the same or related species. They comprise large DNA regions (up to 200 kb of DNA) and often carry more than one virulence gene, the G + C contents of which often differ from those of the remaining bacterial genome. In most cases, Pais are flanked by specific DNA sequences, such as direct repeats or insertion sequence (IS) elements. In addition, Pais of certain bacteria (e,g. uropathogenic Escherichia coli, Yersinia spp., Helicobacter pylori) have the tendency to delete with high frequencies or may undergo duplications and amplifications. Pais are often associated with tRNA loci, which may represent target sites for the chromosomal integration of these elements. Bacteriophage attachment sites and cryptic genes on Pais, which are homologous to phage integrase genes, plasmid origins of replication of IS elements, indicate that these particular genetic elements were previously able to spread among bacterial populations by horizontal gene transfer, a process known to contribute to microbial evolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • Chromosomes / genetics*
  • Genes, Bacterial
  • Gram-Negative Bacteria / genetics*
  • Gram-Negative Bacteria / pathogenicity
  • Gram-Positive Bacteria / genetics*
  • Gram-Positive Bacteria / pathogenicity
  • Virulence / genetics
  • Virulence / physiology