Population genetics and evolution of Cryptococcus gattii : an environmental pathogen
The yeast species Cryptococcus neoformans and C. gattii cause cryptococosis in humans and a range of animal. Although research on Cryptococcus is generally structured in terms of its importance as a fungal pathogen, human infection is accidental and the fungus mostly lives as an environmental saprotroph. C. neoformans and C. gattii each comprise a number of distinct molecular genotypes that vary in their ecology, their geographic distribution, and various virulence-associated phenotypes. In particular, C. gattii molecular type VGII is responsible for outbreaks that have expanded the fungus beyond its normal geographic range. Our interests lie in understanding the ecology and evolution of C. gattii in the environment, and how these relate to its ability to cause disease. We have found the level of sexual recombination varies by molecular type, and that while in general C. gattii population structure is sexual, this is punctuated by periodic clonal lineages that may be associated with disease outbreaks. Here we refine our analysis using MLST data, haplotype networks and coalesence theory. We find the level of diversity within genotypes to be highly constrained and comparable to some recently evolved plant pathogens, and evidence for purifying selection at the master regulator of mating type. Comparison with other fungi that are causing major outbreaks suggests C. gattii outbreaks may be due to a “perfect storm”, where range expansion and elevated transmission combined with high virulence bring the fungus to new areas with deadly consequences.