Imperial College London


Faculty of MedicineSchool of Public Health

Honorary Research Fellow



+44 (0)20 7594 2939r.mostowy




UG4Norfolk PlaceSt Mary's Campus





Publication Type

14 results found

Holt K, Lassalle F, Wyres K, Wick R, Mostowy Ret al., 2020, Diversity and evolution of surface polysaccharide synthesis loci in Enterobacteriales, The ISME Journal: multidisciplinary journal of microbial ecology, Vol: 14, Pages: 1713-1730, ISSN: 1751-7362

Bacterial capsules and lipopolysaccharides are diverse surface polysaccharides (SPs) that serve as the frontline for interactions with the outside world. While SPs can evolve rapidly, their diversity and evolutionary dynamics across different taxonomic scales has not been investigated in detail. Here, we focused on the bacterial order Enterobacteriales (including the medically relevant Enterobacteriaceae), to carry out comparative genomics of two SP locus synthesis regions, cps and kps, using 27,334 genomes from 45 genera. We identified high-quality cps loci in 22 genera and kps in 11 genera, around 4% of which were detected in multiple species. We found SP loci to be highly dynamic genetic entities: their evolution was driven by high rates of horizontal gene transfer (HGT), both of whole loci and component genes, and relaxed purifying selection, yielding large repertoires of SP diversity. In spite of that, we found the presence of (near-)identical locus structures in distant taxonomic backgrounds that could not be explained by recent exchange, pointing to long-term selective preservation of locus structures in some populations. Our results reveal differences in evolutionary dynamics driving SP diversity within different bacterial species, with lineages of Escherichia coli, Enterobacter hormaechei and Klebsiella aerogenes most likely to share SP loci via recent exchange; and lineages of Salmonella enterica, Citrobacter sakazakii and Serratia marcescens most likely to share SP loci via other mechanisms such as long-term preservation. Overall, the evolution of SP loci in Enterobacteriales is driven by a range of evolutionary forces and their dynamics and relative importance varies between different species.

Journal article

Mostowy RJ, Holt KE, 2018, Diversity-generating machines: genetics of bacterial sugar-coating, Trends in Microbiology, Vol: 26, Pages: 1008-1021, ISSN: 0966-842X

Bacterial pathogens and commensals are surrounded by diverse surface polysaccharides which include capsules and lipopolysaccharides. These carbohydrates play a vital role in bacterial ecology and interactions with the environment. Here, we review recent rapid advancements in this field, which have improved our understanding of the roles, structures, and genetics of bacterial polysaccharide antigens. Genetic loci encoding the biosynthesis of these antigens may have evolved as bacterial diversity-generating machines, driven by selection from a variety of forces, including host immunity, bacteriophages, and cell-cell interactions. We argue that the high adaptive potential of polysaccharide antigens should be taken into account in the design of polysaccharide-targeting medical interventions like conjugate vaccines and phage-based therapies.

Journal article

Moradigaravand D, Jamrozy D, Mostowy R, Anderson A, Nickerson EK, Thaipadungpanit J, Wuthiekanun V, Limmathurotsakul D, Tandhavanant S, Wikraiphat C, Wongsuvan G, Teerawattanasook N, Jutrakul Y, Srisurat N, Chaimanee P, Eoin West T, Blane B, Parkhill J, Chantratita N, Peacock SJet al., 2017, Evolution of the Staphylococcus argenteus ST2250 Clone in Northeastern Thailand is linked with the acquisition of livestock-associated Staphylococcal genes, mBio, Vol: 8, ISSN: 2150-7511

Staphylococcus argenteus is a newly named species previously described as a divergent lineage of Staphylococcus aureus that has recently been shown to have a global distribution. Despite growing evidence of the clinical importance of this species, knowledge about its population epidemiology and genomic architecture is limited. We used whole-genome sequencing to evaluate and compare S. aureus (n = 251) and S. argenteus (n = 68) isolates from adults with staphylococcal sepsis at several hospitals in northeastern Thailand between 2006 and 2013. The majority (82%) of the S. argenteus isolates were of multilocus sequence type 2250 (ST2250). S. aureus was more diverse, although 43% of the isolates belonged to ST121. Bayesian analysis suggested an S. argenteus ST2250 substitution rate of 4.66 (95% confidence interval [CI], 3.12 to 6.38) mutations per genome per year, which was comparable to the S. aureus ST121 substitution rate of 4.07 (95% CI, 2.61 to 5.55). S. argenteus ST2250 emerged in Thailand an estimated 15 years ago, which contrasts with the S. aureus ST1, ST88, and ST121 clades that emerged around 100 to 150 years ago. Comparison of S. argenteus ST2250 genomes from Thailand and a global collection indicated a single introduction into Thailand, followed by transmission to local and more distant countries in Southeast Asia and further afield. S. argenteus and S. aureus shared around half of their core gene repertoire, indicating a high level of divergence and providing strong support for their classification as separate species. Several gene clusters were present in ST2250 isolates but absent from the other S. argenteus and S. aureus study isolates. These included multiple exotoxins and antibiotic resistance genes that have been linked previously with livestock-associated S. aureus, consistent with a livestock reservoir for S. argenteus These genes appeared to be associated with pla

Journal article

Mostowy RJ, Croucher NJ, De Maio N, Chewapreecha C, Salter SJ, Turner P, Aanensen DM, Bentley SD, Didelot X, Fraser Cet al., 2017, Pneumococcal capsule synthesis locus cps as evolutionary hotspot with potential to generate novel serotypes by recombination, Molecular Biology and Evolution, Vol: 34, Pages: 2537-2554, ISSN: 1537-1719

Diversity of the polysaccharide capsule in Streptococcus pneumoniae -- main surface antigen and the target of the currently used pneumococcal vaccines -- constitutes a major obstacle in eliminating pneumococcal disease. Such diversity is genetically encoded by almost 100 variants of the capsule biosynthesis locus, cps. However, the evolutionary dynamics of the capsule remains not fully understood. Here, using genetic data from 4,519 bacterial isolates, we found cps to be an evolutionary hotspot with elevated substitution and recombination rates. These rates were a consequence of relaxed purifying selection and positive, diversifying selection acting at this locus, supporting the hypothesis that the capsule has an increased potential to generate novel diversity compared to the rest of the genome. Diversifying selection was particularly evident in the region of wzd/wze genes, which are known to regulate capsule expression and hence the bacterium's ability to cause disease. Using a novel, capsule-centred approach, we analysed the evolutionary history of twelve major serogroups. Such analysis revealed their complex diversification scenarios, which were principally driven by recombination with other serogroups and other streptococci. Patterns of recombinational exchanges between serogroups could not be explained by serotype frequency alone, thus pointing to non-random associations between co-colonising serotypes. Finally, we discovered a previously unobserved mosaic serotype 39X, which was confirmed to carry a viable and structurally novel capsule. Adding to previous discoveries of other mosaic capsules in densely sampled collections, these results emphasise the strong adaptive potential of the bacterium by its ability to generate novel antigenic diversity by recombination.

Journal article

Mostowy R, Croucher NJ, Andam CP, Corander J, Hanage WP, Marttinen Pet al., 2017, Efficient Inference of Recent and Ancestral Recombination within Bacterial Populations, MOLECULAR BIOLOGY AND EVOLUTION, Vol: 34, Pages: 1167-1182, ISSN: 0737-4038

Prokaryotic evolution is affected by horizontal transfer of genetic material through recombination. Inference of an evolutionary tree of bacteria thus relies on accurate identification of the population genetic structure and recombination-derived mosaicism. Rapidly growing databases represent a challenge for computational methods to detect recombinations in bacterial genomes. We introduce a novel algorithm called fastGEAR which identifies lineages in diverse microbial alignments, and recombinations between them and from external origins. The algorithm detects both recent recombinations (affecting a few isolates) and ancestral recombinations between detected lineages (affecting entire lineages), thus providing insight into recombinations affecting deep branches of the phylogenetic tree. In simulations, fastGEAR had comparable power to detect recent recombinations and outstanding power to detect the ancestral ones, compared with state-of-the-art methods, often with a fraction of computational cost. We demonstrate the utility of the method by analyzing a collection of 616 whole-genomes of a recombinogenic pathogen Streptococcus pneumoniae, for which the method provided a high-resolution view of recombination across the genome. We examined in detail the penicillin-binding genes across the Streptococcus genus, demonstrating previously undetected genetic exchanges between different species at these three loci. Hence, fastGEAR can be readily applied to investigate mosaicism in bacterial genes across multiple species. Finally, fastGEAR correctly identified many known recombination hotspots and pointed to potential new ones. Matlab code and Linux/Windows executables are available at (last accessed February 6, 2017).

Journal article

Croucher NJ, Mostowy R, Wymant C, Turner P, Bentley SD, Fraser Cet al., 2016, Horizontal DNA transfer mechanisms of bacteria as weapons of intragenomic conflict, PLOS Biology, Vol: 14, ISSN: 1545-7885

Horizontal DNA transfer (HDT) is a pervasive mechanism of diversification in many microbial species, but its primary evolutionary role remains controversial. Much recent research has emphasised the adaptive benefit of acquiring novel DNA, but here we argue instead that intragenomic conflict provides a coherent framework for understanding the evolutionary origins of HDT. To test this hypothesis, we developed a mathematical model of a clonally descended bacterial population undergoing HDT through transmission of mobile genetic elements (MGEs) and genetic transformation. Including the known bias of transformation toward the acquisition of shorter alleles into the model suggested it could be an effective means of counteracting the spread of MGEs. Both constitutive and transient competence for transformation were found to provide an effective defence against parasitic MGEs; transient competence could also be effective at permitting the selective spread of MGEs conferring a benefit on their host bacterium. The coordination of transient competence with cell-cell killing, observed in multiple species, was found to result in synergistic blocking of MGE transmission through releasing genomic DNA for homologous recombination while simultaneously reducing horizontal MGE spread by lowering the local cell density. To evaluate the feasibility of the functions suggested by the modelling analysis, we analysed genomic data from longitudinal sampling of individuals carrying Streptococcus pneumoniae. This revealed the frequent within-host coexistence of clonally descended cells that differed in their MGE infection status, a necessary condition for the proposed mechanism to operate. Additionally, we found multiple examples of MGEs inhibiting transformation through integrative disruption of genes encoding the competence machinery across many species, providing evidence of an ongoing "arms race." Reduced rates of transformation have also been observed in cells infected by MGEs t

Journal article

Mostowy R, Croucher NJ, Hanage WP, Harris SR, Bentley S, Fraser Cet al., 2014, Heterogeneity in the frequency and characteristics of homologous recombination in pneumococcal evolution, PLoS Genetics, Vol: 10, ISSN: 1553-7390

The bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) is one of the most important human bacterial pathogens, and a leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. The pneumococcus is also known for undergoing extensive homologous recombination via transformation with exogenous DNA. It has been shown that recombination has a major impact on the evolution of the pathogen, including acquisition of antibiotic resistance and serotype-switching. Nevertheless, the mechanism and the rates of recombination in an epidemiological context remain poorly understood. Here, we proposed several mathematical models to describe the rate and size of recombination in the evolutionary history of two very distinct pneumococcal lineages, PMEN1 and CC180. We found that, in both lineages, the process of homologous recombination was best described by a heterogeneous model of recombination with single, short, frequent replacements, which we call micro-recombinations, and rarer, multi-fragment, saltational replacements, which we call macro-recombinations. Macro-recombination was associated with major phenotypic changes, including serotype-switching events, and thus was a major driver of the diversification of the pathogen. We critically evaluate biological and epidemiological processes that could give rise to the micro-recombination and macro-recombination processes.

Journal article

Mostowy R, Engelstädter J, 2012, Host-parasite coevolution induces selection for condition-dependent sex., J Evol Biol, Vol: 25, Pages: 2033-2046

Sex and recombination remain one of the biggest riddles of evolutionary biology. One of the most prominent hypotheses, the Red Queen Hypothesis, claims that sex has evolved as a means to efficiently create genotypes that are resistant against coevolving parasites. However, previous models of the Red Queen have assumed that all individuals are equally likely to engage in sexual reproduction, regardless of their infection status, an assumption that may not be true in reality. Here, we consider a population genetic model of a host population coevolving with a parasite population, where the parasites are haploid and the hosts either haploid or diploid. We assume that the probability to engage in sex may be different in infected and uninfected hosts and ascertain the success of different reproductive strategies with a modifier-gene approach. Our model shows that in the large majority of the parameter space, infection-dependent sex is more successful than infection-independent sex. We identify at least two reasons for this: (i) an immediate short-term advantage of breaking-down gene combinations of unfit individuals and (ii) a selfish spread of the condition-dependent modifiers, in analogy to the 'abandon-ship' effect in single species. In diploids, these effects are often powerful enough to overcome the detrimental effects of segregation. These results raise the intriguing question of why infection-induced sex is not more commonly observed in nature.

Journal article

Mostowy R, Engelstädter J, Salathé M, 2012, Non-genetic inheritance and the patterns of antagonistic coevolution., BMC Evol Biol, Vol: 12

BACKGROUND: Antagonistic species interactions can lead to coevolutionary genotype or phenotype frequency oscillations, with important implications for ecological and evolutionary processes. However, direct empirical evidence of such oscillations is rare. The rarity of observations is generally attributed to inherent difficulties of ecological and evolutionary long-term studies, to weak or absent interaction between species, or to the absence of negative frequency-dependence. RESULTS: Here, we show that another factor - non-genetic inheritance, mediated for example by epigenetic mechanisms - can completely eliminate oscillations in the presence of such negative frequency dependence, even if only a small fraction of offspring are affected. We analytically derive the threshold value of this fraction at which the dynamics change from oscillatory to stable, and investigate how selection, mutation and generation times differences between the two species affect the threshold value. These results strongly suggest that the lack of phenotype frequency oscillations should not be attributed to the lack of strong interactions between antagonistic species. CONCLUSIONS: Given increasing evidence of non-genetic effects on the outcomes of antagonistic species interactions, we suggest that these effects should be incorporated into ecological and evolutionary models of interacting species.

Journal article

Arnoldini M, Mostowy R, Bonhoeffer S, Ackermann Met al., 2012, Evolution of stress response in the face of unreliable environmental signals., PLoS Comput Biol, Vol: 8

Most organisms live in ever-changing environments, and have to cope with a range of different conditions. Often, the set of biological traits that are needed to grow, reproduce, and survive varies between conditions. As a consequence, organisms have evolved sensory systems to detect environmental signals, and to modify the expression of biological traits in response. However, there are limits to the ability of such plastic responses to cope with changing environments. Sometimes, environmental shifts might occur suddenly, and without preceding signals, so that organisms might not have time to react. Other times, signals might be unreliable, causing organisms to prepare themselves for changes that then do not occur. Here, we focus on such unreliable signals that indicate the onset of adverse conditions. We use analytical and individual-based models to investigate the evolution of simple rules that organisms use to decide whether or not to switch to a protective state. We find evolutionary transitions towards organisms that use a combination of random switching and switching in response to the signal. We also observe that, in spatially heterogeneous environments, selection on the switching strategy depends on the composition of the population, and on population size. These results are in line with recent experiments that showed that many unicellular organisms can attain different phenotypic states in a probabilistic manner, and lead to testable predictions about how this could help organisms cope with unreliable signals.

Journal article

Mostowy R, Kouyos RD, Hoof I, Hinkley T, Haddad M, Whitcomb JM, Petropoulos CJ, Keşmir C, Bonhoeffer Set al., 2012, Estimating the fitness cost of escape from HLA presentation in HIV-1 protease and reverse transcriptase., PLoS Comput Biol, Vol: 8

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1) is, like most pathogens, under selective pressure to escape the immune system of its host. In particular, HIV-1 can avoid recognition by cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) by altering the binding affinity of viral peptides to human leukocyte antigen (HLA) molecules, the role of which is to present those peptides to the immune system. It is generally assumed that HLA escape mutations carry a replicative fitness cost, but these costs have not been quantified. In this study, we assess the replicative cost of mutations which are likely to escape presentation by HLA molecules in the region of HIV-1 protease and reverse transcriptase. Specifically, we combine computational approaches for prediction of in vitro replicative fitness and peptide binding affinity to HLA molecules. We find that mutations which impair binding to HLA-A molecules tend to have lower in vitro replicative fitness than mutations which do not impair binding to HLA-A molecules, suggesting that HLA-A escape mutations carry higher fitness costs than non-escape mutations. We argue that the association between fitness and HLA-A binding impairment is probably due to an intrinsic cost of escape from HLA-A molecules, and these costs are particularly strong for HLA-A alleles associated with efficient virus control. Counter-intuitively, we do not observe a significant effect in the case of HLA-B, but, as discussed, this does not argue against the relevance of HLA-B in virus control. Overall, this article points to the intriguing possibility that HLA-A molecules preferentially target more conserved regions of HIV-1, emphasizing the importance of HLA-A genes in the evolution of HIV-1 and RNA viruses in general.

Journal article

Mostowy R, Engelstädter J, 2011, The impact of environmental change on host-parasite coevolutionary dynamics., Proc Biol Sci, Vol: 278, Pages: 2283-2292

Environmental factors are known to affect the strength and the specificity of interactions between hosts and parasites. However, how this shapes patterns of coevolutionary dynamics is not clear. Here, we construct a simple mathematical model to study the effect of environmental change on host-parasite coevolutionary outcome when interactions are of the matching-alleles or the gene-for-gene type. Environmental changes may effectively alter the selective pressure and the level of specialism in the population. Our results suggest that environmental change altering the specificity of selection in antagonistic interactions can produce alternating time windows of cyclical allele-frequency dynamics and cessation thereof. This type of environmental impact can also explain the maintenance of polymorphism in gene-for-gene interactions without costs. Overall, our study points to the potential consequences of environmental variation in coevolution, and thus the importance of characterizing genotype-by-genotype-by-environment interactions in natural host-parasite systems, especially those that change the direction of selection acting between the two species.

Journal article

Mostowy R, Kouyos RD, Fouchet D, Bonhoeffer Set al., 2011, The role of recombination for the coevolutionary dynamics of HIV and the immune response., PLoS One, Vol: 6

The evolutionary implications of recombination in HIV remain not fully understood. A plausible effect could be an enhancement of immune escape from cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs). In order to test this hypothesis, we constructed a population dynamic model of immune escape in HIV and examined the viral-immune dynamics with and without recombination. Our model shows that recombination (i) increases the genetic diversity of the viral population, (ii) accelerates the emergence of escape mutations with and without compensatory mutations, and (iii) accelerates the acquisition of immune escape mutations in the early stage of viral infection. We see a particularly strong impact of recombination in systems with broad, non-immunodominant CTL responses. Overall, our study argues for the importance of recombination in HIV in allowing the virus to adapt to changing selective pressures as imposed by the immune system and shows that the effect of recombination depends on the immunodominance pattern of effector T cell responses.

Journal article

Mostowy R, Salathé M, Kouyos RD, Bonhoeffer Set al., 2010, On the evolution of sexual reproduction in hosts coevolving with multiple parasites., Evolution, Vol: 64, Pages: 1644-1656

Host-parasite coevolution has been studied extensively in the context of the evolution of sex. Although hosts typically coevolve with several parasites, most studies considered one-host/one-parasite interactions. Here, we study population-genetic models in which hosts interact with two parasites. We find that host/multiple-parasite models differ nontrivially from host/single-parasite models. Selection for sex resulting from interactions with a single parasite is often outweighed by detrimental effects due to the interaction between parasites if coinfection affects the host more severely than expected based on single infections, and/or if double infections are more common than expected based on single infections. The resulting selection against sex is caused by strong linkage-disequilibria of constant sign that arise between host loci interacting with different parasites. In contrast, if coinfection affects hosts less severely than expected and double infections are less common than expected, selection for sex due to interactions with individual parasites can now be reinforced by additional rapid linkage-disequilibrium oscillations with changing sign. Thus, our findings indicate that the presence of an additional parasite can strongly affect the evolution of sex in ways that cannot be predicted from single-parasite models, and that thus host/multiparasite models are an important extension of the Red Queen Hypothesis.

Journal article

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