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Background: The global pattern of distribution of 1033 B. anthracis isolates has previously been defined by a set of 12 conserved canonical single nucleotide polymorphisms (canSNP). These studies reinforced the presence of three major lineages and 12 sub-lineages and sub-groups of this anthrax-causing pathogen. Isolates that form the A lineage (unlike the B and C lineages) have become widely dispersed throughout the world and form the basis for the geographical disposition of "modern" anthrax. An archival collection of 191 different B. anthracis isolates from China provides a glimpse into the possible role of Chinese trade and commerce in the spread of certain sub-lineages of this pathogen. Canonical single nucleotide polymorphism (canSNP) and multiple locus VNTR analysis (MLVA) typing has been used to examine this archival collection of isolates.
Results: The canSNP study indicates that there are 5 different sub-lineages/sub-groups in China out of 12 previously described world-wide canSNP genotypes. Three of these canSNP genotypes were only found in the western-most province of China, Xinjiang. These genotypes were A.Br.008/ 009, a sub-group that is spread across most of Europe and Asia; A.Br.Aust 94, a sub-lineage that is present in Europe and India, and A.Br.Vollum, a lineage that is also present in Europe. The remaining two canSNP genotypes are spread across the whole of China and belong to sub-group A.Br.001/002 and the A.Br.Ames sub-lineage, two closely related genotypes. MLVA typing adds resolution to the isolates in each canSNP genotype and diversity indices for the A.Br.008/009 and A.Br.001/002 sub-groups suggest that these represent older and established clades in China.
Conclusion: B. anthracis isolates were recovered from three canSNP sub-groups (A.Br.008/009, A.Br.Aust94, and A.Br.Vollum) in the western most portion of the large Chinese province of Xinjiang. The city of Kashi in this province appears to have served as a crossroads for not only trade but the movement of diseases such as anthrax along the ancient "silk road". Phylogenetic inference also suggests that the A.Br.Ames sub-lineage, first identified in the original Ames strain isolated from Jim Hogg County, TX, is descended from the A.Br.001/002 sub-group that has a major presence in most of China. These results suggest a genetic discontinuity between the younger Ames sub-lineage in Texas and the large Western North American sub-lineage spread across central Canada and the Dakotas.