Genomic and geographic context for the evolution of high-risk carbapenem-resistant Enterobacter cloacae complex clones ST171 and ST78


Recent reports have established the escalating threat of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacter cloacae complex (CREC). Here, we demonstrate that CREC has evolved as a highly antibiotic-resistant rather than highly virulent nosocomial pathogen. Applying genomics and Bayesian phylogenetic analyses to a 7-year collection of CREC isolates from a northern Manhattan hospital system and to a large set of publicly available, geographically diverse genomes, we demonstrate clonal spread of a single clone, ST171. We estimate that two major clades of epidemic ST171 diverged prior to 1962, subsequently spreading in parallel from the Northeastern to the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern United States and demonstrating links to international sites. Acquisition of carbapenem and fluoroquinolone resistance determinants by both clades preceded widespread use of these drugs in the mid-1980s, suggesting that antibiotic pressure contributed substantially to its spread. Despite a unique mobile repertoire, ST171 isolates showed decreased virulence in vitro. While a second clone, ST78, substantially contributed to the emergence of CREC, it encompasses diverse carbapenemase-harboring plasmids, including a potentially hypertransmissible IncN plasmid, also present in other sequence types. Rather than heightened virulence, CREC demonstrates lineage-specific, multifactorial adaptations to nosocomial environments coupled with a unique potential to acquire and disseminate carbapenem resistance genes. These findings indicate a need for robust surveillance efforts that are attentive to the potential for local and international spread of high-risk CREC clones.


Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacter cloacae complex (CREC) has emerged as a formidable nosocomial pathogen. While sporadic acquisition of plasmid-encoded carbapenemases has been implicated as a major driver of CREC, ST171 and ST78 clones demonstrate epidemic potential. However, a lack of reliable genomic references and rigorous statistical analyses has left many gaps in knowledge regarding the phylogenetic context and evolutionary pathways of successful CREC. Our reconstruction of recent ST171 and ST78 evolution represents a significant addition to current understanding of CREC and the directionality of its spread from the Eastern United States to the northern Midwestern United States with links to international collections. Our results indicate that the remarkable ability of E. cloacae to acquire and disseminate cross-class antibiotic resistance rather than virulence determinants, coupled with its ability to adapt under conditions of antibiotic pressure, likely led to the wide dissemination of CREC.


* Contributed equally