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BACKGROUND: Staphylococcal protein A (spa) is an important virulence factor which enables Staphylococcus aureus to evade host immune responses. Genotypes known as "spa-types", based on highly variable Xr region sequences of the spa-gene, are frequently used to classify strains. A weakness of current spa-typing primers is that rearrangements in the IgG-binding region of the gene cause 1-2% of strains to be designated as "non-typeable". RESULTS: We developed an improved primer which enabled sequencing of all strains, containing any type of genetic rearrangement, in a large study among community carriers and hospital inpatients in Oxfordshire, UK (6110 isolates). We identified eight novel spa-gene variants, plus one previously described. Three of these rearrangements would be designated "non-typeable" using current spa-typing methods; they occurred in 1.8% (72/3905) asymptomatically carried and 0.6% (14/2205) inpatient S. aureus strains. Some individuals were simultaneously colonized by both formerly non-typeable and typeable strains; previously such patients would have been identified as carrying only currently typeable strains, underestimating mixed carriage prevalence and diversity. Formerly non-typeable strains were found in more spa-types associated with multilocus sequence type ST398 (35%), common among livestock, compared to other groups with any non-typeable strains (1-4%), suggesting particular spa-types may have been under-represented in previous human studies. CONCLUSIONS: This improved method allows us to spa-type previously non-typeable strains with rearrangements in the spa-gene and to resolve cases of mixed colonization with deletions in one or more strains, thus accounting for hidden diversity of S. aureus in both community and hospital environments.

Original publication




Journal article


BMC Microbiol

Publication Date





DNA Primers, DNA, Bacterial, Hospitals, Humans, Molecular Sequence Data, Molecular Typing, Mutation, Prevalence, Sensitivity and Specificity, Sequence Analysis, DNA, Staphylococcal Infections, Staphylococcal Protein A, Staphylococcus aureus, United Kingdom