Wide dispersal and possible multiple origins of low-copy-number plasmids in Rickettsia species associated with blood-feeding arthropods

Gerald D. Baldridge, Nicole Y. Burkhardt, Marcelo B. Labruna, Richard C. Pacheco, Christopher D. Paddock, Philip C. Williamson, Peggy M. Billingsley, Roderick F. Felsheim, Timothy J. Kurtti, Ulrike G. Munderloh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Plasmids are mobile genetic elements of bacteria that can impart important adaptive traits, such as increased virulence or antibiotic resistance. We report the existence of plasmids in Rickettsia (Rickettsiales; Rickettsiaceae) species, including Rickettsia akari, "Candidatus Rickettsia amblyommii," R. bellii, R. rhipicephali, and REIS, the rickettsial endosymbiont of Ixodes scapularis. All of the rickettsiae were isolated from humans or North and South American ticks. R. parkeri isolates from both continents did not possess plasmids. We have now demonstrated plasmids in nearly all Rickettsia species that we have surveyed from three continents, which represent three of the four major proposed phylogenetic groups associated with blood-feeding arthropods. Gel-based evidence consistent with the existence of multiple plasmids in some species was confirmed by cloning plasmids with very different sequences from each of two "Ca. Rickettsia amblyommii" isolates. Phylogenetic analysis of rickettsial ParA plasmid partitioning proteins indicated multiple parA gene origins and plasmid incompatibility groups, consistent with possible multiple plasmid origins. Phylogenetic analysis of potentially host-adaptive rickettsial small heat shock proteins showed that hsp2 genes were plasmid specific and that hsp1 genes, found only on plasmids of "Ca. Rickettsia amblyommii," R. felis, R. monacensis, and R. peacockii, were probably acquired independently of the hsp2 genes. Plasmid copy numbers in seven Rickettsia species ranged from 2.4 to 9.2 per chromosomal equivalent, as determined by real-time quantitative PCR. Plasmids may be of significance in rickettsial evolution and epidemiology by conferring genetic plasticity and host-adaptive traits via horizontal gene transfer that counteracts the reductive genome evolution typical of obligate intracellular bacteria.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1718-1731
Number of pages14
JournalApplied and environmental microbiology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 2010


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