The major virulence cluster of Listeria monocytogenes harbors six virulence genes that encode proteins critical for the intracellular life cycle of this human and animal pathogen. In this study, we determined the sequence (8709 nt) of the virulence gene cluster (including the six main virulence genes) in 40 L. monocytogenes isolates from different source populations (human clinical cases, animal clinical cases, foods, and natural environments). An alignment of the full length cluster as well as individual gene alignments and alignments of intragenic regions were used for phylogenetic, recombination, and positive selection analyses. Initial phylogenetic analyses showed that the sequences represented two main clusters, consistent with previously defined L. monocytogenes phylogenetic lineages. The 40 sequences represented 25 distinct allelic types and the overall alignment included 592 polymorphic sites. Overall, our data show that (i) virulence genes in the main L. monocytogenes virulence gene cluster include highly conserved genes (i.e., hly and prfA) as well as diverse genes that appear to have evolved by positive selection (mpl, actA, and plcA), (ii) recombination has played an important role in the evolution of the virulence gene cluster, but is limited to lineage II isolates, and (iii) the promoter region driving the transcription of virulence genes transcribed early in intracellular infection (i.e., hly and plcA) has evolved by positive selection. The genes and intragenic regions in the L. monocytogenes virulence gene cluster thus have evolved independently, despite their close physical linkage, likely reflecting distinct selective pressures associated with expression and function of the proteins encoded in this region.
- Listeria monocytogenes
- Positive selection