Genomic epizootiology of a Brucella abortus outbreak in Northern Ireland (1997–2012)

Adrian R. Allen, Georgina Milne, Kevin Drees, Eleanor Presho, Jordon Graham, Paul McAdam, Kerri Jones, Lorraine Wright, Robin Skuce, Adrian M. Whatmore, Judith Graham, Jeffrey T. Foster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Background: In the recent past (1997–2012), Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom suffered an outbreak of Brucella abortus, which at its height affected over 200 cattle herds. Initially, isolates were characterized using multi-locus variable number tandem repeats analysis (MLVA). While informative in this setting, hyper-variability in some loci limited the resolution necessary to infer fine-scale disease transmission networks. Consequently, we applied whole-genome sequencing to isolates from this outbreak to evaluate higher resolution markers for disease epizootiology. Results: Phylogenetic analysis revealed that the B. abortus outbreak in Northern Ireland was caused by two distinct pathogen lineages. One contained isolates consistent with the 1997–2012 outbreak being linked to a previous endemic infection thought eradicated. The dominant second lineage exhibited little genetic diversity throughout the recrudescent outbreak, with limited population sub-structure evident. This finding was inconsistent with prior MLVA molecular characterizations that suggested the presence of seven clonal complexes. Spatio-temporal modeling revealed a significant association of pairwise SNP differences between isolates and geographic distances. However, effect sizes were very small due to reduced pathogen diversity. Conclusions: Genome sequence data suggested that hyper-variability in some MLVA loci contributed to an overestimate of pathogen diversity in the most recent outbreak. The low diversity observed in our genomic dataset made it inappropriate to apply phylodynamic methods to these data. We conclude that maintaining data repositories of genome sequence data will be invaluable for source attribution/epizootiological inference should recrudescence ever re-occur. However genomic epizootiological methods may have limited utility in some settings, such as when applied to recrudescent/re-emergent infections of slowly-evolving bacterial pathogens.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104235
JournalInfection, Genetics and Evolution
StatePublished - Jul 2020


  • Brucellosis
  • Genome sequencing
  • Molecular epizootiology
  • Recrudescence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Infectious Diseases


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