It has been noted that many bacterial virulence factor genes are located within genomic islands (GIs; clusters of genes in a prokaryotic genome of probable horizontal origin). However, such studies have been limited to single genera or isolated observations. We have performed the first large-scale analysis of multiple diverse pathogens to examine this association. We additionally identified genes found predominantly in pathogens, but not non-pathogens, across multiple genera using 631 complete bacterial genomes, and we identified common trends in virulence for genes in GIs. Furthermore, we examined the relationship between GIs and clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats (CRISPRs) proposed to confer resistance to phage.
We show quantitatively that GIs disproportionately contain more virulence factors than the rest of a given genome (p<1E-40 using three GI datasets) and that CRISPRs are also over-represented in GIs. Virulence factors in GIs and pathogen-associated virulence factors are enriched for proteins having more “offensive” functions, e.g. active invasion of the host, and are disproportionately components of type III/IV secretion systems or toxins. Numerous hypothetical pathogen-associated genes were identified, meriting further study.
This is the first systematic analysis across diverse genera indicating that virulence factors are disproportionately associated with GIs. “Offensive” virulence factors, as opposed to host-interaction factors, may more often be a recently acquired trait (on an evolutionary time scale detected by GI analysis). Newly identified pathogen-associated genes warrant further study. We discuss the implications of these results, which cement the significant role of GIs in the evolution of many pathogens.