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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Drawing the line between commensal and pathogenic Gardnerella vaginalis through genome analysis and virulence studies

Michael D Harwich1, Joao M Alves1, Gregory A Buck1, Jerome F Strauss2, Jennifer L Patterson2, Aminat T Oki1, Philippe H Girerd2 and Kimberly K Jefferson1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Medical College of Virginia Campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, 1101 E. Marshall Street - PO Box 980678, Richmond, VA 23298 USA

2 Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Medical College of Virginia Campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, 1101 East Marshall Street - P.O. Box 980034, Richmond, VA 23298 USA

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BMC Genomics 2010, 11:375  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-11-375

Published: 11 June 2010

Abstract

Background

Worldwide, bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common vaginal disorder. It is associated with risk for preterm birth and HIV infection. The etiology of the condition has been debated for nearly half a century and the lack of knowledge about its cause and progression has stymied efforts to improve therapy and prevention. Gardnerella vaginalis was originally identified as the causative agent, but subsequent findings that it is commonly isolated from seemingly healthy women cast doubt on this claim. Recent studies shedding light on the virulence properties of G. vaginalis, however, have drawn the species back into the spotlight.

Results

In this study, we sequenced the genomes of a strain of G. vaginalis from a healthy woman, and one from a woman with bacterial vaginosis. Comparative analysis of the genomes revealed significant divergence and in vitro studies indicated disparities in the virulence potential of the two strains. The commensal isolate exhibited reduced cytotoxicity and yet the cytolysin proteins encoded by the two strains were nearly identical, differing at a single amino acid, and were transcribed at similar levels. The BV-associated strain encoded a different variant of a biofilm associated protein gene and demonstrated greater adherence, aggregation, and biofilm formation. Using filters with different pore sizes, we found that direct contact between the bacteria and epithelial cells is required for cytotoxicity.

Conclusions

The results indicated that contact is required for cytotoxicity and suggested that reduced cytotoxicity in the commensal isolate could be due to impaired adherence. This study outlines two distinct genotypic variants of G. vaginalis, one apparently commensal and one pathogenic, and presents evidence for disparate virulence potentials.