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A total of 133 Listeria monocytogenes isolates were characterized by ribotyping and allelic analysis of the virulence genes hly, actA, and inlA to uncover linkages between independent phylogenetic and specific virulence markers. PCR-restriction fragment length polymorphisms revealed 8 hly, 11 inl4, and 2 actA alleles. The combination of these virulence gene alleles and ribotype patterns separated L. monocytogenes into three distinct lineages. While distinct hly and inlA alleles were generally found to cluster into these three lineages, actA alleles segregated independently. These three phylogenetic lineages were confirmed when 22 partial actA DNA sequences were analyzed. The clinical history of the L. monocytogenes strains showed evidence for differences in pathogenic potential among the three lineages. Lineage I contains all strains isolated during epidemic outbreaks of listeriosis, while no human isolates were found in lineage III. Animal isolates were found in all three lineages. We found evidence that isolates from lineages I and III have a higher plaquing efficiency than lineage II strains in a cell culture assay. Strains from lineage III also seem to form larger plaques than strains from lineage II. A distinctive ribotype fragment and unique 16S rRNA gene sequences furthermore suggest that lineage III might represent a L. monocytogenes subspecies. None of the 20 human isolates available but 11% of our animal isolates were grouped in this lineage, indicating that strains in this lineage might have reduced virulence for humans.