Toxigenic conversion of environmental Vibrio cholerae strains through lysogenic infection by the phage CTXΦ is an important step in the emergence of new pathogenic clones. The precursor form of the CTXΦ phage, pre-CTXΦ, does not carry the cholera toxin gene. During our investigation, we frequently found pre-CTXΦ prophages in non-toxigenic isolates in the serogroups of O1 and O139 strains in the Zhujiang estuary. We observed high amounts of sequence variation of rstR and gIIICTX in the pre-CTXΦ alleles as well as in the tcpA sequences within the strains. In addition, a new pre-CTXΦ allele, with a novel rstR sequence type and hybrid RS2, was identified. Our findings show that active, complicated gene recombination and horizontal transfer of pre-CTXΦs occurs within V. cholerae environmental strains, which creates a complex intermediate pool for the generation of toxigenic clones in the estuarine environment.
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