Genetic Variation between Pathogen Strains Contributes to Diverse Patient Immune Responses

Individuals have wide-ranging physiological responses to the same species of pathogen. Researchers have demonstrated that different strains of a given bacterial species can elicit unique adaptive immune responses in the same individual, suggesting that variation between bacterial strains can explain heterogeneity in patient infection vulnerability.

Research from the Rockefeller University suggests that variability between strains of the same bacterial species could influence patient immune response. Image credit: Mogana Das Murtey / Patchamuthu Ramasamy / CC BY-SA 3.

Research from the Rockefeller University suggests that variability between strains of the same bacterial species could influence patient immune response. Image credit: Mogana Das Murtey / Patchamuthu Ramasamy / CC BY-SA 3.

Diverse patient responses to the same species of pathogen have perplexed scientists for years. For example, most individuals infected by the bacterial species that causes tuberculosis do not develop symptoms.

This heterogeneity in susceptibility could be explained by either variability between patients or within the pathogen species. Indeed, rare genetic variants can explain why some patients have atypical pathogen susceptibility.

Nevertheless, the contribution of variability between different strains of the same bacterial species to this phenomenon had not been systematically investigated.

Scientists from Rockefeller University have tested this idea by infecting the same individuals with multiple strains of Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes and analyzing the resulting immune responses.

Published in PLOS Pathogens by the laboratory of Vincent A. Fischetti, this study found that genetic variation among strains of the same bacterial species does influence the patient immune response.

In fact, the diversity of an individual’s response to different strains of pathogen is as wide as the variation found between different patients.

“Our findings are novel and unexpected, and may set the stage for better ways to predict a patient’s disease outcome and tailor treatment accordingly,” said Uri Sela, the primary author of the paper.

Their conclusions have implications both in the laboratory and the clinic.

For one, they call into question the ability of scientists to draw broad conclusions from experiments performed on one strain of a pathogenic species, as each strain clearly provoke different responses.

These findings also suggest that clinicians must appreciate a patient’s particular strain of pathogen and shape clinical decisions accordingly.

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Uri Sela et al. Strains of bacterial species induce a greatly varied acute adaptive immune response: The contribution of the accessory genome. PLOS Pathogens 14 (1): e1006726; doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1006726

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