Adaptation by ancient horizontal acquisition of butyrate metabolism genes in aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans

Ahmed M. Moustafa, Senthil Kumar Velusamy, Lidiya Denu, Apurva Narechania, Daniel H. Fine, Paul J. Planet

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Like the bacterial residents of the human gut, it is likely that many of the species in the human oral microbiota have evolved to better occupy and persist in their niche. Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans (Aa) is both a common colo-nizer of the oral cavity and has been implicated in the pathogenesis of periodontal disease. Here, we present a whole-genome phylogenetic analysis of Aa isolates from humans and nonhuman primates that revealed an ancient origin for this species and a long history of association with the Catarrhini, the lineage that includes Old World monkeys (OWM) and humans. Further genomic analysis showed a strong association with the presence of a short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) catabolism locus (atoRDAEB) in many human isolates that was absent in almost all nonhuman OWM isolates. We show that this locus was likely acquired through horizontal gene transfer. When grown under conditions that are similar to those at the subgingival site of periodon-titis (anaerobic, SCFA replete), Aa strains with atoRDAEB formed robust biofilms and showed upregulation of genes involved in virulence, colonization, and immune eva-sion. Both an isogenic deletion mutant and nonhuman primate isolates lacking the ato locus failed to grow in a robust biofilm under these conditions, but grew well under the carbohydrate-rich conditions similar to those found above the gumline. We propose that the acquisition of the ato locus was a key evolutionary step allowing Aa to utilize SCFAs, adapt, and modulate subgingival disease. IMPORTANCE There has been considerable interest in the impact of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) on inflammatory effects related to the microbiome. Here, we present evidence that SCFAs may also be important in disease by providing an energy source or disease-associated cue for colonizing pathogens. We propose that SCFAs allow Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans (Aa) to adapt to the subgingival anaerobic environment, which is the site of human periodontitis. Under anaerobic, SCFA-rich conditions, human-derived Aa strains that possess butyrate metabolism genes form strong biofilms and upregulate virulence genes. Our phylogenetic analysis highlights a long history of evolution of Aa with its primate hosts and suggests that the acquisition of butyrate metabolism genes may have been a critical step in allowing Aa to colonize a new niche and cause disease in humans. Overall, this study highlights the important role that horizontal gene transfer may play in microbial adaptation and the evolution of infectious disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere03581-20
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Microbiology
  • Virology


  • Aggregatibacter
  • Horizontal gene transfer
  • Nutritional immunity
  • Old World monkey
  • Periodontitis
  • Short-chain fatty acid

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