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1.  Natural Selection Promotes Antigenic Evolvability 
PLoS Pathogens  2013;9(11):e1003766.
The hypothesis that evolvability - the capacity to evolve by natural selection - is itself the object of natural selection is highly intriguing but remains controversial due in large part to a paucity of direct experimental evidence. The antigenic variation mechanisms of microbial pathogens provide an experimentally tractable system to test whether natural selection has favored mechanisms that increase evolvability. Many antigenic variation systems consist of paralogous unexpressed ‘cassettes’ that recombine into an expression site to rapidly alter the expressed protein. Importantly, the magnitude of antigenic change is a function of the genetic diversity among the unexpressed cassettes. Thus, evidence that selection favors among-cassette diversity is direct evidence that natural selection promotes antigenic evolvability. We used the Lyme disease bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, as a model to test the prediction that natural selection favors amino acid diversity among unexpressed vls cassettes and thereby promotes evolvability in a primary surface antigen, VlsE. The hypothesis that diversity among vls cassettes is favored by natural selection was supported in each B. burgdorferi strain analyzed using both classical (dN/dS ratios) and Bayesian population genetic analyses of genetic sequence data. This hypothesis was also supported by the conservation of highly mutable tandem-repeat structures across B. burgdorferi strains despite a near complete absence of sequence conservation. Diversification among vls cassettes due to natural selection and mutable repeat structures promotes long-term antigenic evolvability of VlsE. These findings provide a direct demonstration that molecular mechanisms that enhance evolvability of surface antigens are an evolutionary adaptation. The molecular evolutionary processes identified here can serve as a model for the evolution of antigenic evolvability in many pathogens which utilize similar strategies to establish chronic infections.
Author Summary
The hypothesis that natural selection shapes the ability of a population to evolve is highly controversial due primarily to a paucity of empirical evidence. However, the ability to constantly and rapidly evolve may be selectively adaptive in pathogens due to the constantly changing environment created by the vertebrate immune response. The Lyme disease bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, evades immune detection through a system consisting of numerous unexpressed ‘cassette’ sequences that alter the expressed protein via recombination. Importantly, the potential for evolutionary change in the expressed protein, and thus its ability to repeatedly escape a directed immune response, is correlated with the diversity among the cassettes. We analyzed genetic data from diverse B. burgdorferi strains to test the hypothesis that natural selection favors diversity among the unexpressed cassettes in order to promote evolvability. The data provide significant evidence of natural selection acting to increase among-cassette diversity, but only in regions that are targeted by immune antibodies when expressed. Further, these antigenically-important regions contain mutation-prone DNA sequence structures that are conserved despite high levels of sequence divergence among strains. The empirical evidence of selection favoring mutation-prone sequences and favoring among-cassette diversity supports the hypothesis that natural selection can shape the evolvability of populations.
PMCID: PMC3828179  PMID: 24244173
2.  Sialic acid mediated transcriptional modulation of a highly conserved sialometabolism gene cluster in Haemophilus influenzae and its effect on virulence 
BMC Microbiology  2010;10:48.
Sialic acid has been shown to be a major virulence determinant in the pathogenesis of otitis media caused by the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae. This study aimed to characterise the expression of genes required for the metabolism of sialic acid and to investigate the role of these genes in virulence.
Using qRT-PCR, we observed decreased transcriptional activity of genes within a cluster that are required for uptake and catabolism of 5-acetyl neuraminic acid (Neu5Ac), when bacteria were cultured in the presence of the sugar. We show that these uptake and catabolic genes, including a sialic acid regulatory gene (siaR), are highly conserved in the H. influenzae natural population. Mutant strains were constructed for seven of the nine genes and their influence upon LPS sialylation and resistance of the bacteria to the killing effect of normal human serum were assessed. Mutations in the Neu5Ac uptake (TRAP transporter) genes decreased virulence in the chinchilla model of otitis media, but the attenuation was strain dependent. In contrast, mutations in catabolism genes and genes regulating sialic acid metabolism (siaR and crp) did not attenuate virulence.
The commensal and pathogenic behaviour of H. influenzae involves LPS sialylation that can be influenced by a complex regulatory interplay of sialometabolism genes.
PMCID: PMC2836998  PMID: 20158882
3.  A Simplified 4-Site Economical Intradermal Post-Exposure Rabies Vaccine Regimen: A Randomised Controlled Comparison with Standard Methods 
The need for economical rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is increasing in developing countries. Implementation of the two currently approved economical intradermal (ID) vaccine regimens is restricted due to confusion over different vaccines, regimens and dosages, lack of confidence in intradermal technique, and pharmaceutical regulations. We therefore compared a simplified 4-site economical PEP regimen with standard methods.
Two hundred and fifty-four volunteers were randomly allocated to a single blind controlled trial. Each received purified vero cell rabies vaccine by one of four PEP regimens: the currently accepted 2-site ID; the 8-site regimen using 0.05 ml per ID site; a new 4-site ID regimen (on day 0, approximately 0.1 ml at 4 ID sites, using the whole 0.5 ml ampoule of vaccine; on day 7, 0.1 ml ID at 2 sites and at one site on days 28 and 90); or the standard 5-dose intramuscular regimen. All ID regimens required the same total amount of vaccine, 60% less than the intramuscular method. Neutralising antibody responses were measured five times over a year in 229 people, for whom complete data were available.
All ID regimens showed similar immunogenicity. The intramuscular regimen gave the lowest geometric mean antibody titres. Using the rapid fluorescent focus inhibition test, some sera had unexpectedly high antibody levels that were not attributable to previous vaccination. The results were confirmed using the fluorescent antibody virus neutralisation method.
This 4-site PEP regimen proved as immunogenic as current regimens, and has the advantages of requiring fewer clinic visits, being more practicable, and having a wider margin of safety, especially in inexperienced hands, than the 2-site regimen. It is more convenient than the 8-site method, and can be used economically with vaccines formulated in 1.0 or 0.5 ml ampoules. The 4-site regimen now meets all requirements of immunogenicity for PEP and can be introduced without further studies.
Trial Registration ISRCTN 30087513
Author Summary
All human deaths from rabies result from failure to give adequate prophylaxis. After a rabid animal bite, immediate wound cleaning, rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin injections effectively prevent fatal infection. Immunoglobulin is very rarely available in developing countries, where prevention relies on efficacious vaccine. WHO approved vaccines are prohibitively expensive, but 2 economical regimens (injecting small amounts of vaccine intradermally, into the skin, at 2 or 8 sites on the first day of the course) have been used for many years in a few places. Practical or perceived difficulties have restricted widespread uptake of economical methods. These could largely be overcome by introducing a new, simpler regimen, involving 4 site injections on the first day. We vaccinated volunteers to compare the antibody levels induced by the 4-site intradermal regimen with those induced by the current 2-site and 8-site regimens and the “gold standard” intramuscular regimen favoured internationally. All the economical intradermal regimens were at least as immunogenic as the intramuscular method. The results provide sufficient evidence that the 4-site regimen meets the criteria necessary for its recommendation for use wherever the cost of vaccine is prohibitive and especially where 2 or more patients are treated on the same day.
PMCID: PMC2292256  PMID: 18431444

Results 1-3 (3)