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Remodeling of pSK1 Family Plasmids and Enhanced Chlorhexidine Tolerance in a Dominant Hospital Lineage of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus

  • Baines, Sarah L.
  • Jensen, Slade O.
  • Firth, Neville
  • Gonçalves da Silva, Anders
  • Seemann, Torsten
  • Carter, Glen P.
  • Williamson, Deborah A.
  • Howden, Benjamin P.
  • Stinear, Timothy P.
Published Article
Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy
American Society for Microbiology
Publication Date
Apr 25, 2019
DOI: 10.1128/AAC.02356-18
PMID: 30783008
PMCID: PMC6496109
PubMed Central


Staphylococcus aureus is a significant human pathogen whose evolution and adaptation have been shaped in part by mobile genetic elements (MGEs), facilitating the global spread of extensive antimicrobial resistance. However, our understanding of the evolutionary dynamics surrounding MGEs, in particular, how changes in the structure of multidrug resistance (MDR) plasmids may influence important staphylococcal phenotypes, is incomplete. Here, we undertook a population and functional genomics study of 212 methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) sequence type 239 (ST239) isolates collected over 32 years to explore the evolution of the pSK1 family of MDR plasmids, illustrating how these plasmids have coevolved with and contributed to the successful adaptation of this persistent MRSA lineage. Using complete genomes and temporal phylogenomics, we reconstructed the evolution of the pSK1 family lineage from its emergence in the late 1970s and found that multiple structural variants have arisen. Plasmid maintenance and stability were linked to IS 256 - and IS 257 -mediated chromosomal integration and disruption of the plasmid replication machinery. Overlaying genomic comparisons with phenotypic susceptibility data for gentamicin, trimethoprim, and chlorhexidine, it appeared that pSK1 has contributed to enhanced resistance in ST239 MRSA isolates through two mechanisms: (i) acquisition of plasmid-borne resistance mechanisms increasing the rates of gentamicin resistance and reduced chlorhexidine susceptibility and (ii) changes in the plasmid configuration linked with further enhancement of chlorhexidine tolerance. While the exact mechanism of enhanced tolerance remains elusive, this research has uncovered a potential evolutionary response of ST239 MRSA to biocides, one of which may contribute to the ongoing persistence and adaptation of this lineage within health care institutions.

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