Evolution of Streptococcus pneumoniae and Its Close Commensal Relatives
Streptococcus pneumoniae is a member of the Mitis group of streptococci which, according to 16S rRNA-sequence based phylogenetic reconstruction, includes 12 species. While other species of this group are considered prototypes of commensal bacteria, S. pneumoniae is among the most frequent microbial killers worldwide. Population genetic analysis of 118 strains, supported by demonstration of a distinct cell wall carbohydrate structure and competence pheromone sequence signature, shows that S. pneumoniae is one of several hundred evolutionary lineages forming a cluster separate from Streptococcus oralis and Streptococcus infantis. The remaining lineages of this distinct cluster are commensals previously collectively referred to as Streptococcus mitis and each represent separate species by traditional taxonomic standard. Virulence genes including the operon for capsule polysaccharide synthesis and genes encoding IgA1 protease, pneumolysin, and autolysin were randomly distributed among S. mitis lineages. Estimates of the evolutionary age of the lineages, the identical location of remnants of virulence genes in the genomes of commensal strains, the pattern of genome reductions, and the proportion of unique genes and their origin support the model that the entire cluster of S. pneumoniae, S. pseudopneumoniae, and S. mitis lineages evolved from pneumococcus-like bacteria presumably pathogenic to the common immediate ancestor of hominoids. During their adaptation to a commensal life style, most of the lineages gradually lost the majority of genes determining virulence and became genetically distinct due to sexual isolation in their respective hosts.