BACKGROUND: Bacillus anthracis, the highly dangerous zoonotic bacterial pathogen species is currently composed of three genetic groups, called A, B and C. Group A is represented worldwide whereas group B is present essentially in Western Europe and Southern Africa. Only three strains from group C have been reported. This knowledge is derived from the genotyping of more than 2000 strains collected worldwide. Strains from both group A and group B are present in France. Previous investigations showed that the majority of sporadic French strains belong to the so-called A.Br.011/009 group A clade and define a very remarkable polytomy with six branches. Here we explore the significance of this polytomy by comparing the French B. anthracis lineages to worldwide lineages. We take advantage of whole genome sequence data previously determined for 122 French strains and 45 strains of various origins.
RESULTS: A total of 6690 SNPs was identified among the available dataset and used to draw the phylogeny. The phylogeny of the French B group strains which belongs to B.Br.CNEVA indicates an expansion from the south-east part of France (the Alps) towards the south-west (Massif-Central and Pyrenees). The relatively small group A strains belonging to A.Br.001/002 results from at least two independent introductions. Strikingly, the data clearly demonstrates that the currently predominant B. anthracis lineage in North America, called WNA for Western North American, is derived from one branch of the A.Br.011/009 polytomy predominant in France.
CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: The present work extends the range of observed substitution rate heterogeneity within B. anthracis, in agreement with its ecology and in contrast with some other pathogens. The population structure of the six branches A.Br.011/009 polytomy identified in France, diversity of branch length, and comparison with the WNA lineage, suggests that WNA is of post-Columbian and west European origin, with France as a likely source. Furthermore, it is tempting to speculate that the polytomy's most recent common ancestor -MRCA- dates back to the Hundred Years' war between France and England started in the mid-fourteenth century. These events were associated in France with deadly epidemics and major economic and social changes.
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