Genomic Delineation of Zoonotic Origins of Clostridium difficile

Daniel R. Knight, Thomas V. Riley

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

21 Citations (Scopus)


Clostridium difficile is toxin-producing antimicrobial resistant (AMR) enteropathogen historically associated with diarrhea and pseudomembranous colitis in hospitalized patients. In recent years, there have been dramatic increases in the incidence and severity of C. difficile infection (CDI), and associated morbidity and mortality, in both healthcare and community settings. C. difficile is an ancient and diverse species that displays a sympatric lifestyle, establishing itself in a range of ecological niches external to the healthcare system. These sources/reservoirs include food, water, soil, and over a dozen animal species, in particular, livestock such as pigs and cattle. In a manner analogous to human infection, excessive antimicrobial exposure, particularly to cephalosporins, is driving the expansion of C. difficile in livestock populations worldwide. Subsequent spore contamination of meat, vegetables grown in soil containing animal feces, agricultural by-products such as compost and manure, and the environment in general (households, lawns, and public spaces) is contributing to a persistent community source/reservoir of C. dffficile and the insidious rise of CDI in the community. The whole-genome sequencing era continues to redefine our view of this complex pathogen. The application of high-resolution microbial genomics in a One Health framework (encompassing clinical, veterinary, and environment derived datasets) is the optimal paradigm for advancing our understanding of CDI in humans and animals. This approach has begun to yield critical insights into the genetic diversity, evolution, AMR, and zoonotic potential of C. difficile. In Europe, North America, and Australia, microevolutionary analysis of the C. difficile core genome shows strains common to humans and animals (livestock or companion animals) do not form distinct populations but share a recent evolutionary history. Moreover, for C. difficile sequence type 11 and PCR ribotypes 078 and 014, major lineages of One Health importance, this approach has substantiated inter-species clonal transmission between animals and humans. These findings indicate either a zoonosis or anthroponosis. Moreover, they challenge the existing paradigm and the long-held misconception that CDI is primarily a healthcare-associated infection. In this article, evolutionary, and zoonotic aspects of CDI are discussed, including the anthropomorphic factors that contribute to the spread of C. difficile from the farm to the community.

Original languageEnglish
Article number164
Number of pages16
JournalFrontiers in Public Health
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jun 2019

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