Virulent and avirulent isolates of Rhodococcus equi coexist in equine feces and the environment and are a source of infection for foals. The extent to which plasmid transfer occurs among field strains is ill-defined and this information is important for understanding the epidemiology of R. equi infections of foals.
To estimate the frequency of transfer of the virulence plasmid between virulent and avirulent strains of R. equi derived from foals and their environment.
In vitro study; 5 rifampin-susceptible, virulent R. equi isolates obtained from clinically affected foals or air samples from a farm with a history of recurrent R. equi foal pneumonia were each mixed with 5 rifampin-resistant, avirulent isolates derived from soil samples, using solid medium, at a ratio of 10 donor cells (virulent) per recipient cell. Presumed transconjugates were detected by plating on media with rifampin and colony immunoblotting to detect the presence of the virulence-associated protein A.
Three presumed transconjugates were detected among 2,037 recipient colonies, indicating an overall estimated transfer frequency of 0.15% (95% CI, 0.03–0.43%). All 3 transconjugates were associated with a single donor and 2 recipient strains. Genotyping and multiplex PCR of presumed transconjugates demonstrated transfer of the virulence-associated protein A-bearing plasmid between virulent and avirulent R. equi.
Conclusions and Clinical Importance
Transfer of the virulence plasmid occurs with relatively high frequency. These findings could impact strategies to control or prevent R. equi through environmental management.