The Gram-negative bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei is the causative agent of melioidosis, a serious infectious disease of humans and animals. Once considered an esoteric tropical disease confined to Southeast Asia and northern Australia, research on B. pseudomallei has recently gained global prominence due to its classification as a potential bioterrorism agent by countries such as the United States and also by increasing numbers of case reports from regions where it is not endemic.
An environmental bacterium typically found in soil and water, assessing the true global prevalence of melioidosis is challenged by the fact that clinical symptoms associated with B. pseudomallei infection are extremely varied and may be confused with diverse conditions such as lung cancer, tuberculosis, or Staphyloccocus aureus infection. These diagnostic challenges, coupled with lack of awareness among clinicians, have likely contributed to underdiagnosis and the high mortality rate of melioidosis, as initial treatment is often either inappropriate or delayed. Even after antibiotic treatment, relapses are frequent, and after resolution of acute symptoms, chronic melioidosis can also occur, and the symptoms can persist for months to years.
In a recent article, Price et al. demonstrate how comparative genomic sequencing can reveal the repertoire of genetic changes incurred by B. pseudomallei during chronic human infection. Their results have significant clinical ramifications and highlight B. pseudomallei’s ability to survive in a wide range of potential niches within hosts, through the acquisition of genetic adaptations that optimize fitness and resource utilization. These studies demonstrate B. pseudomallei’s remarkable ability to evolve genetically even within the same human host.