The bacterial accessory genome provides the genetic flexibility needed to facilitate environment and host adaptation. In Neisseria gonorrhoeae, known accessory elements include plasmids which can transfer and mediate antimicrobial resistance (AMR); however, chromosomal accessory genes could also play a role in AMR. Here, the gonococcal accessory genome was characterized using gene-by-gene approaches and its association with the core genome and AMR were assessed. The gonococcal accessory gene pool consisted of 247 genes, which were mainly genes located on large mobile genetic elements, phage associated genes, or genes encoding putative secretion systems. Accessory elements showed similar synteny across genomes, indicating either a predisposition for particular genomic locations or ancestral inheritance that are conserved during strain expansion. Significant associations were found between the prevalence of accessory elements and core genome multi-locus sequence types (cgMLST), consistent with a structured gonococcal population despite frequent horizontal gene transfer (HGT). Increased prevalence of putative DNA exchange regulators was significantly associated with AMR, which included a putative secretion system, methyltransferases and a toxin-antitoxin system. Although frequent HGT results in high genetic diversity in the gonococcus, we found that this is mediated by a small gene pool. In fact, a highly organized genome composition was identified with a strong association between the accessory and core genome. Increased prevalence of DNA exchange regulators in antimicrobial resistant isolates suggests that genetic material exchange plays a role in the development or maintenance of AMR. These findings enhance our understanding of gonococcal genome architecture and have important implications for gonococcal population biology. IMPORTANCE The emergence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) against third generation cephalosporins in Neisseria gonorrhoeae is a major public health concern, as these are antibiotics of last resort for the effective treatment of gonorrhea. Although the resistance mechanisms against this class of antibiotics have not been entirely resolved, resistance against other classes of antibiotics, such as tetracyclines, is known to be mediated through plasmids, which are known gonococcal extra-chromosomal accessory elements. A complete assessment of the chromosomal accessory genome content and its role in AMR has not yet been undertaken. Here, we comprehensively characterize the gonococcal accessory genome to better understand genome architecture as well as the evolution and mechanisms of AMR in this species.
Neisseria gonorrhoeae, accessory genome, antimicrobial resistance, core genome, pangenome, population biology