Phasevarions of bacterial pathogens – phase-variable epigenetic regulators evolving from restriction–modification systems
Phase-variable DNA methyltransferases control the expression of multiple genes via epigenetic mechanisms in a wide variety of bacterial species. These systems are called phasevarions, for phase-variable regulons. Phasevarions regulate genes involved in pathogenesis, host adaptation and antibiotic resistance. Many human-adapted bacterial pathogens contain phasevarions. These include leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide, such as non-typeable Haemophilus influenzae , Streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria spp. Phase-variable methyltransferases and phasevarions have also been discovered in environmental organisms and veterinary pathogens. The existence of many different examples suggests that phasevarions have evolved multiple times as a contingency strategy in the bacterial domain, controlling phenotypes that are important in adapting to environmental change. Many of the organisms that contain phasevarions have existing or emerging drug resistance. Vaccines may therefore represent the best and most cost-effective tool to prevent disease caused by these organisms. However, many phasevarions also control the expression of current and putative vaccine candidates; variable expression of antigens could lead to immune evasion, meaning that vaccines designed using these targets become ineffective. It is therefore essential to characterize phasevarions in order to determine an organism’s stably expressed antigenic repertoire, and rationally design broadly effective vaccines.