Whole genome sequencing reveals human-to-monkey disease transmission

There are numerous examples of humans acquiring disease from monkeys and other non-human primates, but fewer instances of humans transmitting disease to monkeys. A team of researchers led by Dr. Martin Antonio of the Medical Research Council Unit, The Gambia and the University of Warwick found that Staphylococcus aureus had been passed from humans to African green monkeys in The Gambia. Published this month in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, the study used whole genome sequencing to assess the genetic makeup of the pathogen from humans and monkeys.

A common pathogen

Staphylococcus aureus is an important pathogen for humans and causes a variety of conditions from mild to very severe. For example, it can cause meningitis, skin infection and pneumonia, with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) being particularly dangerous due to its resistance to many commonly used antibiotics.

The authors of the study analyzed DNA previously isolated from African green monkeys and humans using nasopharyngeal or oropharyngeal swabs. Whole genome sequencing of both populations revealed widespread clonal complexes that delineated from each other. The researchers analyzed the relationships between the various strains and were able to identify multiple transmission events of Staphylococcus aureus from humans to monkeys.

An adult green monkey
The first event is believed to have occurred approximately 2,700 years ago. Two other lineages seem to have transitioned to monkeys three decades ago and about seven years ago, respectively. Interestingly, there was no evidence of transmission of Staphylococcus aureus from monkeys to humans.

Increasing interaction

As animal habitats continue to shrink, human and animal interaction grows. Humans are encroaching on wildlife areas and living in closer proximity. The authors of the study suggest that the monkeys they identified picked up the pathogen from visitors and locals feeding them peanuts. This area of The Gambia has tourists who frequently feed the wild monkeys which have become accustomed to humans. Bacteria from the hands of humans was passed to the monkeys with the exchange of peanuts and other snacks. As human populations increase, interspecies transmission will become more frequent and is dangerous to humans and non-human animals alike.

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