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Obligate intracellular bacteria, or those only capable of growth inside other living cells, have limited opportunities for horizontal gene transfer with other microbes due to their isolated replicative niche. The human pathogen Ot, an obligate intracellular bacterium causing scrub typhus, encodes an unusually high copy number of a ~40 gene mobile genetic element that typically facilitates genetic transfer across microbes. This proliferated element is heavily degraded in Ot and previously assumed to be inactive. Here, we conducted a detailed analysis of this element in eight Ot strains and discovered two strains with at least one intact copy. This implies that the element is still capable of moving across Ot populations and suggests that the genome of this bacterium may be even more dynamic than previously appreciated. Our work raises questions about intracellular microbial evolution and sounds an alarm for gene-based efforts focused on diagnosing and combatting scrub typhus.

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Orientia tsutsugamushi, Rickettsiales, comparative genomics, gene transfer agents, integrative and conjugative elements, intracellular pathogens, lateral gene transfer, mobile genetic elements, obligate intracellular bacteria, Humans, Orientia tsutsugamushi, Scrub Typhus, Gene Transfer, Horizontal, Genome, Bacterial, Longitudinal Studies