Whole Genome Sequencing demonstrates that geographic variation of Escherichia coli O157 genotypes dominates host association

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Genetic variation in an infectious disease pathogen can be driven by ecological niche dissimilarities arising from different host species and different geographical locations. Whole genome sequencing was used to compare E. coli O157 isolates from host reservoirs (cattle and sheep) from Scotland and to compare genetic variation of isolates (human, animal, environmental/food) obtained from Scotland, New Zealand, Netherlands, Canada and the USA. Nei's genetic distance calculated from core genome single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) demonstrated that the animal isolates were from the same population. Investigation of the Shiga toxin bacteriophage and their insertion sites (SBI typing) revealed that cattle and sheep isolates had statistically indistinguishable rarefaction profiles, diversity and genotypes. In contrast, isolates from different countries exhibited significant differences in Nei's genetic distance and SBI typing. Hence, after successful international transmission, which has occurred on multiple occasions, local genetic variation occurs, resulting in a global patchwork of continental and trans-continental phylogeographic clades. These findings are important for three reasons: first, understanding transmission and evolution of infectious diseases associated with multiple host reservoirs and multi-geographic locations; second, highlighting the relevance of the sheep reservoir when considering farm based interventions; and third, improving our understanding of why human disease incidence varies across the world.