Chlamydia gallinacea: genetically armed as a pathogen however a phenotypical commensal?

Chlamydia gallinacea is an obligate intracellular bacterium that has recently been added to the family of Chlamydiaceae. C. gallinacea is genetically diverse, widespread in poultry and a suspected cause of pneumonia in slaughterhouse workers. In poultry, C. gallinacea infections appear asymptomatic, but studies about the pathogenic potential are limited.

In this study two novel sequence types of C. gallinacea were isolated from apparently healthy chickens. Both isolates (NL_G47 and NL_F725) were closely related to each other and showed 99.1% DNA sequence identity to C. gallinacea Type strain 08-1274/3. To gain further insight in the pathogenic potential, infection experiments in embryonated chicken eggs and comparative genomics with Chlamydia psittaci were performed.

C. psittaci is an ubiquitous zoonotic pathogen of birds and mammals, and infection in poultry can result in severe systemic illness. In experiments with embryonated chicken eggs C. gallinacea induced mortality was observed, potentially strain dependent but lower compared to C. psittaci induced mortality. Comparative analyses confirmed all currently available C. gallinacea genomes possess the hallmark genes coding for known and potential virulence factors as found in C. psittaci albeit to a reduced number of orthologues or paralogs.

The presence of (potential) virulence factors and the observed mortality in embryonated eggs indicates C. gallinacea should rather be considered as a (conditional) pathogen than an innocuous commensal.

Importance Chlamydiaceae are a family of bacteria comprising human and animal pathogens including the recently recognized Chlamydia gallinacea. C. gallinacea is widespread in poultry without causing clinical signs, which raises questions about its pathogenic potential.

To assess this potential, two novel C. gallinacea strains were isolated, tested in infection experiments in embryonated chicken eggs and compared to C. psittaci. C. psittaci infection in poultry can result in severe systemic illness, depending on the conditions, and infections can be transmitted to humans.

In the experiments C. gallinacea infection induced mortality of the embryo, but to a lower extent than infection with C. psittaci. Subsequent genome comparisons confirmed both C. gallinacea strains possess potential virulence genes typical for chlamydia, but fewer than C. psittaci.

These results indicate C. gallinacea does have a pathogenic potential which warrants further research to elucidate its role as a poultry pathogen.

Authors: Marloes Heijne, Martina Jelocnik, Alexander Umanets, Michael S.M. Brouwer, Annemieke Dinkla, Frank Harders, Lucien J.M. van Keulen, Hendrik Jan Roest, Famke Schaafsma, Francisca C. Velkers, Jeanet A. van der Goot, Yvonne Pannekoek, Ad P. Koets