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1.  Temperate Phages Acquire DNA from Defective Prophages by Relaxed Homologous Recombination: The Role of Rad52-Like Recombinases 
PLoS Genetics  2014;10(3):e1004181.
Bacteriophages (or phages) dominate the biosphere both numerically and in terms of genetic diversity. In particular, genomic comparisons suggest a remarkable level of horizontal gene transfer among temperate phages, favoring a high evolution rate. Molecular mechanisms of this pervasive mosaicism are mostly unknown. One hypothesis is that phage encoded recombinases are key players in these horizontal transfers, thanks to their high efficiency and low fidelity. Here, we associate two complementary in vivo assays and a bioinformatics analysis to address the role of phage encoded recombinases in genomic mosaicism. The first assay allowed determining the genetic determinants of mosaic formation between lambdoid phages and Escherichia coli prophage remnants. In the second assay, recombination was monitored between sequences on phage λ, and allowed to compare the performance of three different Rad52-like recombinases on the same substrate. We also addressed the importance of homologous recombination in phage evolution by a genomic comparison of 84 E. coli virulent and temperate phages or prophages. We demonstrate that mosaics are mainly generated by homology-driven mechanisms that tolerate high substrate divergence. We show that phage encoded Rad52-like recombinases act independently of RecA, and that they are relatively more efficient when the exchanged fragments are divergent. We also show that accessory phage genes orf and rap contribute to mosaicism. A bioinformatics analysis strengthens our experimental results by showing that homologous recombination left traces in temperate phage genomes at the borders of recently exchanged fragments. We found no evidence of exchanges between virulent and temperate phages of E. coli. Altogether, our results demonstrate that Rad52-like recombinases promote gene shuffling among temperate phages, accelerating their evolution. This mechanism may prove to be more general, as other mobile genetic elements such as ICE encode Rad52-like functions, and play an important role in bacterial evolution itself.
Author Summary
Temperate bacteriophages (or phages) are bacterial viruses that, unlike virulent phages, have the ability to enter a prophage dormant state upon infection, in which they stably replicate with the bacterial genome. A majority of bacterial genomes contain multiple active or defective prophages, and numerous bacterial phenotypes are modified by these prophages, such as increased virulence. These mobile genetic elements are subject to high levels of genetic exchanges, through which new genes are constantly imported into bacterial genomes. Phage-encoded homologous recombination enzymes, or recombinases, are potentially key actors in phage genome shuffling. In this work, we show that gene acquisition in temperate phages is strongly dependent on the presence of sequence homology, but is highly tolerant to divergence. We report that gene exchanges are mainly catalyzed by recombinases found on temperate phages, and show that four different Rad52-like recombinases have a relaxed fidelity in vivo, compared to RecA. This high capacity of exchange speeds up evolution of phages, and indirectly also the evolution of bacteria.
PMCID: PMC3945230  PMID: 24603854
2.  The Kil Peptide of Bacteriophage λ Blocks Escherichia coli Cytokinesis via ZipA-Dependent Inhibition of FtsZ Assembly 
PLoS Genetics  2014;10(3):e1004217.
Assembly of the essential, tubulin-like FtsZ protein into a ring-shaped structure at the nascent division site determines the timing and position of cytokinesis in most bacteria and serves as a scaffold for recruitment of the cell division machinery. Here we report that expression of bacteriophage λ kil, either from a resident phage or from a plasmid, induces filamentation of Escherichia coli cells by rapid inhibition of FtsZ ring formation. Mutant alleles of ftsZ resistant to the Kil protein map to the FtsZ polymer subunit interface, stabilize FtsZ ring assembly, and confer increased resistance to endogenous FtsZ inhibitors, consistent with Kil inhibiting FtsZ assembly. Cells with the normally essential cell division gene zipA deleted (in a modified background) display normal FtsZ rings after kil expression, suggesting that ZipA is required for Kil-mediated inhibition of FtsZ rings in vivo. In support of this model, point mutations in the C-terminal FtsZ-interaction domain of ZipA abrogate Kil activity without discernibly altering FtsZ-ZipA interactions. An affinity-tagged-Kil derivative interacts with both FtsZ and ZipA, and inhibits sedimentation of FtsZ filament bundles in vitro. Together, these data inspire a model in which Kil interacts with FtsZ and ZipA in the cell to prevent FtsZ assembly into a coherent, division-competent ring structure. Phage growth assays show that kil+ phage lyse ∼30% later than kil mutant phage, suggesting that Kil delays lysis, perhaps via its interaction with FtsZ and ZipA.
Author Summary
Bacterial antibiotic resistance is a serious concern, particularly its role in hospital-acquired infection. Viruses that infect bacteria (bacteriophage) can kill their host, and some prevent the bacterial cell from reproducing during that process. Since their discovery, phage have been considered a potential tool against bacterial infection, but little is known regarding how phage-encoded factors may inhibit bacterial cell division. Understanding the interaction between phage factors and the targeted host systems is therefore a critical research goal. Our report focuses on E. coli and λ, a well-studied phage that infects it. λ contains a gene, kil, whose expression prevents E. coli from dividing, causing cells to grow into long filaments that die. Here we report that Kil protein prevents an essential bacterial protein, FtsZ, from properly assembling into the structure needed for cell division. Our data show that Kil can inhibit FtsZ assembly directly in vitro, but that ZipA, another essential cell division protein, enhances its activity on FtsZ in vivo. The results of our study elucidate one way that a phage naturally inhibits bacterial reproduction, which could serve as a target for rational antibiotic design.
PMCID: PMC3961180  PMID: 24651041
3.  Manipulating or Superseding Host Recombination Functions: A Dilemma That Shapes Phage Evolvability 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(9):e1003825.
Phages, like many parasites, tend to have small genomes and may encode autonomous functions or manipulate those of their hosts'. Recombination functions are essential for phage replication and diversification. They are also nearly ubiquitous in bacteria. The E. coli genome encodes many copies of an octamer (Chi) motif that upon recognition by RecBCD favors repair of double strand breaks by homologous recombination. This might allow self from non-self discrimination because RecBCD degrades DNA lacking Chi. Bacteriophage Lambda, an E. coli parasite, lacks Chi motifs, but escapes degradation by inhibiting RecBCD and encoding its own autonomous recombination machinery. We found that only half of 275 lambdoid genomes encode recombinases, the remaining relying on the host's machinery. Unexpectedly, we found that some lambdoid phages contain extremely high numbers of Chi motifs concentrated between the phage origin of replication and the packaging site. This suggests a tight association between replication, packaging and RecBCD-mediated recombination in these phages. Indeed, phages lacking recombinases strongly over-represent Chi motifs. Conversely, phages encoding recombinases and inhibiting host recombination machinery select for the absence of Chi motifs. Host and phage recombinases use different mechanisms and the latter are more tolerant to sequence divergence. Accordingly, we show that phages encoding their own recombination machinery have more mosaic genomes resulting from recent recombination events and have more diverse gene repertoires, i.e. larger pan genomes. We discuss the costs and benefits of superseding or manipulating host recombination functions and how this decision shapes phage genome structure and evolvability.
Author Summary
Bacterial viruses, called bacteriophages, are extremely abundant in the biosphere. They have key roles in the regulation of bacterial populations and in the diversification of bacterial genomes. Among these viruses, lambdoid phages are very abundant in enterobacteria and exchange genetic material very frequently. This latter process is thought to increase phage diversity and therefore facilitate adaptation to hosts. Recombination is also essential for the replication of many lambdoid phages. Lambdoids have been described to encode their own recombination genes and inhibit their hosts'. In this study, we show that lambdoids are split regarding their capacity to encode autonomous recombination functions and that this affects the abundance of recombination-related sequence motifs. Half of the phages encode an autonomous system and inhibit their hosts'. The trade-off between superseding and manipulating the hosts' recombination functions has important consequences. The phages encoding autonomous recombination functions have more diverse gene repertoires and recombine more frequently. Viruses, as many other parasites, have small genomes and depend on their hosts for several housekeeping functions. Hence, they often face trade-offs between supersession and manipulation of molecular machineries. Our results suggest these trade-offs may shape viral gene repertoires, their sequence composition and even influence their evolvability.
PMCID: PMC3784561  PMID: 24086157
4.  A Multifaceted Study of Pseudomonas aeruginosa Shutdown by Virulent Podovirus LUZ19 
mBio  2013;4(2):e00061-13.
In contrast to the rapidly increasing knowledge on genome content and diversity of bacterial viruses, insights in intracellular phage development and its impact on bacterial physiology are very limited. We present a multifaceted study combining quantitative PCR (qPCR), microarray, RNA-seq, and two-dimensional gel electrophoresis (2D-GE), to obtain a global overview of alterations in DNA, RNA, and protein content in Pseudomonas aeruginosa PAO1 cells upon infection with the strictly lytic phage LUZ19. Viral genome replication occurs in the second half of the phage infection cycle and coincides with degradation of the bacterial genome. At the RNA level, there is a sharp increase in viral mRNAs from 23 to 60% of all transcripts after 5 and 15 min of infection, respectively. Although microarray analysis revealed a complex pattern of bacterial up- and downregulated genes, the accumulation of viral mRNA clearly coincides with a general breakdown of abundant bacterial transcripts. Two-dimensional gel electrophoretic analyses shows no bacterial protein degradation during phage infection, and seven stress-related bacterial proteins appear. Moreover, the two most abundantly expressed early and late-early phage proteins, LUZ19 gene product 13 (Gp13) and Gp21, completely inhibit P. aeruginosa growth when expressed from a single-copy plasmid. Since Gp13 encodes a predicted GNAT acetyltransferase, this observation points at a crucial but yet unexplored level of posttranslational viral control during infection.
Massive genome sequencing has led to important insights into the enormous genetic diversity of bacterial viruses (bacteriophages). However, for nearly all known phages, information on the impact of the phage infection on host physiology and intracellular phage development is scarce. This aspect of phage research should be revitalized, as phages evolved genes which can shut down or redirect bacterial processes in a very efficient way, which can be exploited towards antibacterial design. In this context, we initiated a study of the human opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa under attack by one its most common predators, the Phikmvlikevirus. By analyzing various stages of infection at different levels, this study uncovers new features of phage infection, representing a cornerstone for future studies on members of this phage genus.
PMCID: PMC3604761  PMID: 23512961
5.  Artificial Neural Networks Trained to Detect Viral and Phage Structural Proteins 
PLoS Computational Biology  2012;8(8):e1002657.
Phages play critical roles in the survival and pathogenicity of their hosts, via lysogenic conversion factors, and in nutrient redistribution, via cell lysis. Analyses of phage- and viral-encoded genes in environmental samples provide insights into the physiological impact of viruses on microbial communities and human health. However, phage ORFs are extremely diverse of which over 70% of them are dissimilar to any genes with annotated functions in GenBank. Better identification of viruses would also aid in better detection and diagnosis of disease, in vaccine development, and generally in better understanding the physiological potential of any environment. In contrast to enzymes, viral structural protein function can be much more challenging to detect from sequence data because of low sequence conservation, few known conserved catalytic sites or sequence domains, and relatively limited experimental data. We have designed a method of predicting phage structural protein sequences that uses Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs). First, we trained ANNs to classify viral structural proteins using amino acid frequency; these correctly classify a large fraction of test cases with a high degree of specificity and sensitivity. Subsequently, we added estimates of protein isoelectric points as a feature to ANNs that classify specialized families of proteins, namely major capsid and tail proteins. As expected, these more specialized ANNs are more accurate than the structural ANNs. To experimentally validate the ANN predictions, several ORFs with no significant similarities to known sequences that are ANN-predicted structural proteins were examined by transmission electron microscopy. Some of these self-assembled into structures strongly resembling virion structures. Thus, our ANNs are new tools for identifying phage and potential prophage structural proteins that are difficult or impossible to detect by other bioinformatic analysis. The networks will be valuable when sequence is available but in vitro propagation of the phage may not be practical or possible.
Author Summary
Bacteriophages are extremely abundant and diverse biological entities. All phage particles are comprised of nucleic acids and structural proteins, with few other packaged proteins. Despite their simplicity and abundance, more than 70% of phage sequences in the viral Reference Sequence database encode proteins with unknown function based on FASTA annotations. As a result, the use of sequence similarity is often insufficient for detecting virus structural proteins among unknown viral sequences. Viral structural protein function is challenging to detect from sequence data because structural proteins possess few known conserved catalytic motifs and sequence domains. To address these issues we investigated the use of Artificial Neural Networks as an alternative means of predicting function. Here, we trained thousands of networks using the amino acid frequency of structural protein sequences and identified the optimal architectures with the highest accuracies. Some hypothetical protein sequences detected by our networks were expressed and visualized by TEM, and produced images that strongly resemble virion structures. Our results support the utility of our neural networks in predicting the functions of unknown viral sequences.
PMCID: PMC3426561  PMID: 22927809
6.  Exploring the Mycobacteriophage Metaproteome: Phage Genomics as an Educational Platform 
PLoS Genetics  2006;2(6):e92.
Bacteriophages are the most abundant forms of life in the biosphere and carry genomes characterized by high genetic diversity and mosaic architectures. The complete sequences of 30 mycobacteriophage genomes show them collectively to encode 101 tRNAs, three tmRNAs, and 3,357 proteins belonging to 1,536 “phamilies” of related sequences, and a statistical analysis predicts that these represent approximately 50% of the total number of phamilies in the mycobacteriophage population. These phamilies contain 2.19 proteins on average; more than half (774) of them contain just a single protein sequence. Only six phamilies have representatives in more than half of the 30 genomes, and only three—encoding tape-measure proteins, lysins, and minor tail proteins—are present in all 30 phages, although these phamilies are themselves highly modular, such that no single amino acid sequence element is present in all 30 mycobacteriophage genomes. Of the 1,536 phamilies, only 230 (15%) have amino acid sequence similarity to previously reported proteins, reflecting the enormous genetic diversity of the entire phage population. The abundance and diversity of phages, the simplicity of phage isolation, and the relatively small size of phage genomes support bacteriophage isolation and comparative genomic analysis as a highly suitable platform for discovery-based education.
Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacterial hosts and are estimated to be the most numerous biological entities in the biosphere. Insights into the genetic diversity of the bacteriophage population and the evolutionary mechanisms that give rise to it can be obtained using comparative genomic analyses. The genomic analysis of 30 complete mycobacteriophages—viruses that infect mycobacterial hosts—reveals them to be genetically diverse and to contain many previously unidentified genes. The high diversity and relatively small genome sizes of these phages provide an ideal platform for introducing high school and undergraduate students to the research laboratory, isolating and naming novel viruses, and determining their genomic sequences. The thrill of discovering new viruses and previously unidentified genes, coupled with ownership of individual phage projects, provides strong motivations for students to engage in and pursue scientific research.
PMCID: PMC1475703  PMID: 16789831
7.  Genomic and Functional Analyses of Rhodococcus equi Phages ReqiPepy6, ReqiPoco6, ReqiPine5, and ReqiDocB7 ▿  
The isolation and results of genomic and functional analyses of Rhodococcus equi phages ReqiPepy6, ReqiDocB7, ReqiPine5, and ReqiPoco6 (hereafter referred to as Pepy6, DocB7, Pine5, and Poco6, respectively) are reported. Two phages, Pepy6 and Poco6, more than 75% identical, exhibited genome organization and protein sequence likeness to Lactococcus lactis phage 1706 and clostridial prophage elements. An unusually high fraction, 27%, of Pepy6 and Poco6 proteins were predicted to possess at least one transmembrane domain, a value much higher than the average of 8.5% transmembrane domain-containing proteins determined from a data set of 36,324 phage protein entries. Genome organization and protein sequence comparisons place phage Pine5 as the first nonmycobacteriophage member of the large Rosebush cluster. DocB7, which had the broadest host range among the four isolates, was not closely related to any phage or prophage in the database, and only 23 of 105 predicted encoded proteins could be assigned a functional annotation. Because of the relationship of Rhodococcus to Mycobacterium, it was anticipated that these phages should exhibit some of the features characteristic of mycobacteriophages. Traits that were identified as shared by the Rhodococcus phages and mycobacteriophages include the prevalent long-tailed morphology and the presence of genes encoding LysB-like mycolate-hydrolyzing lysis proteins. Application of DocB7 lysates to soils amended with a host strain of R. equi reduced recoverable bacterial CFU, suggesting that phage may be useful in limiting R. equi load in the environment while foals are susceptible to infection.
PMCID: PMC3020559  PMID: 21097585
8.  Whole genome comparison of a large collection of mycobacteriophages reveals a continuum of phage genetic diversity 
eLife  null;4:e06416.
The bacteriophage population is large, dynamic, ancient, and genetically diverse. Limited genomic information shows that phage genomes are mosaic, and the genetic architecture of phage populations remains ill-defined. To understand the population structure of phages infecting a single host strain, we isolated, sequenced, and compared 627 phages of Mycobacterium smegmatis. Their genetic diversity is considerable, and there are 28 distinct genomic types (clusters) with related nucleotide sequences. However, amino acid sequence comparisons show pervasive genomic mosaicism, and quantification of inter-cluster and intra-cluster relatedness reveals a continuum of genetic diversity, albeit with uneven representation of different phages. Furthermore, rarefaction analysis shows that the mycobacteriophage population is not closed, and there is a constant influx of genes from other sources. Phage isolation and analysis was performed by a large consortium of academic institutions, illustrating the substantial benefits of a disseminated, structured program involving large numbers of freshman undergraduates in scientific discovery.
eLife digest
Viruses are unable to replicate independently. To generate copies of itself, a virus must instead invade a target cell and commandeer that cell's replication machinery. Different viruses are able to invade different types of cell, and a group of viruses known as bacteriophages (or phages for short) replicate within bacteria. The enormous number and diversity of phages in the world means that they play an important role in virtually every ecosystem.
Despite their importance, relatively little is known about how different phage populations are related to each other and how they evolved. Many phages contain their genetic information in the form of strands of DNA. Using genetic sequencing to find out where and how different genes are encoded in the DNA can reveal information about how different viruses are related to each other. These relationships are particularly complicated in phages, as they can exchange genes with other viruses and microbes.
Previous studies comparing the genomes—the complete DNA sequence—of reasonably small numbers of phages that infect the Mycobacterium group of bacteria have found that the phages can be sorted into ‘clusters’ based on similarities in their genes and where these are encoded in their DNA. However, the number of phages investigated so far has been too small to conclude how different clusters are related. Are the clusters separate, or do they form a ‘continuum’ with different genes and DNA sequences shared between different clusters?
Here, Pope, Bowman, Russell et al. compare the individual genomes of 627 bacteriophages that infect the bacterial species Mycobacterium smegmatis. This is by far the largest number of phage genomes analyzed from a single host species. The large number of genomes analyzed allowed a much clearer understanding of the complexity and diversity of these phages to be obtained. The isolation, sequencing and analysis of the hundreds of M. smegmatis bacteriophage genomes was performed by an integrated research and education program, called the Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) program. This enabled thousands of undergraduate students from different institutions to contribute to the phage discovery and sequencing project, and co-author the report. SEA-PHAGES therefore shows that it is possible to successfully incorporate genuine scientific research into an undergraduate course, and that doing so can benefit both the students and researchers involved.
The results show that while the genomes could be categorized into 28 clusters, the genomes are not completely unrelated. Instead, a spread of diversity is seen, as genes and groups of genes are shared between different clusters. Pope, Bowman, Russell et al. further reveal that the phage population is in a constant state of change, and continuously acquires genes from other microorganisms and viruses.
PMCID: PMC4408529  PMID: 25919952
bacteriophage; genomics; evolution; viruses
9.  A New Group of Phage Anti-CRISPR Genes Inhibits the Type I-E CRISPR-Cas System of Pseudomonas aeruginosa 
mBio  2014;5(2):e00896-14.
CRISPR-Cas systems are one of the most widespread phage resistance mechanisms in prokaryotes. Our lab recently identified the first examples of phage-borne anti-CRISPR genes that encode protein inhibitors of the type I-F CRISPR-Cas system of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. A key question arising from this work was whether there are other types of anti-CRISPR genes. In the current work, we address this question by demonstrating that some of the same phages carrying type I-F anti-CRISPR genes also possess genes that mediate inhibition of the type I-E CRISPR-Cas system of P. aeruginosa. We have discovered four distinct families of these type I-E anti-CRISPR genes. These genes do not inhibit the type I-F CRISPR-Cas system of P. aeruginosa or the type I-E system of Escherichia coli. Type I-E and I-F anti-CRISPR genes are located at the same position in the genomes of a large group of related P. aeruginosa phages, yet they are found in a variety of combinations and arrangements. We have also identified functional anti-CRISPR genes within nonprophage Pseudomonas genomic regions that are likely mobile genetic elements. This work emphasizes the potential importance of anti-CRISPR genes in phage evolution and lateral gene transfer and supports the hypothesis that more undiscovered families of anti-CRISPR genes exist. Finally, we provide the first demonstration that the type I-E CRISPR-Cas system of P. aeruginosa is naturally active without genetic manipulation, which contrasts with E. coli and other previously characterized I-E systems.
The CRISPR-Cas system is an adaptive immune system possessed by the majority of prokaryotic organisms to combat potentially harmful foreign genetic elements. This study reports the discovery of bacteriophage-encoded anti-CRISPR genes that mediate inhibition of a well-studied subtype of CRISPR-Cas system. The four families of anti-CRISPR genes described here, which comprise only the second group of anti-CRISPR genes to be identified, encode small proteins that bear no sequence similarity to previously studied phage or bacterial proteins. Anti-CRISPR genes represent a newly discovered and intriguing facet of the ongoing evolutionary competition between phages and their bacterial hosts.
PMCID: PMC3993853  PMID: 24736222
10.  Isolation, characterization and comparative genomics of bacteriophage SfIV: a novel serotype converting phage from Shigella flexneri 
BMC Genomics  2013;14:677.
Shigella flexneri is the major cause of shigellosis in the developing countries. The O-antigen component of the lipopolysaccharide is one of the key virulence determinants required for the pathogenesis of S. flexneri. The glucosyltransferase and/or acetyltransferase genes responsible for the modification of the O-antigen are encoded by temperate serotype converting bacteriophage present in the S. flexneri genome. Several serotype converting phages have previously been isolated and characterized, however, attempts to isolate a serotype converting phage which encodes the modification genes of serotypes 4a strain have not been successful.
In this study, a novel temperate serotype converting bacteriophage SfIV was isolated. Lysogenisation of phage SfIV converted serotype Y strain to serotype 4a. Electron microscopy indicated that SfIV belongs to Myoviridae family. The 39,758 bp genome of phage SfIV encompasses 54 open reading frames (orfs). Protein level comparison of SfIV with other serotype converting phages of S. flexneri revealed that SfIV is similar to phage SfII and SfV. The comparative analysis also revealed that SfIV phage contained five proteins which were not found in any other phages of S. flexneri. These proteins were: a tail fiber assembly protein, two hypothetical proteins with no clear function, and two other unknown proteins which were encoded by orfs present on a moron, that presumably got introduced in SfIV genome from another species via a transposon. These unique proteins of SfIV may play a role in the pathogenesis of the host.
This study reports the isolation and complete genome sequence analysis of bacteriophage SfIV. The SfIV phage has a host range significantly different from the other phages of Shigella. Comparative genome analysis identified several proteins unique to SfIV, which may potentially be involved in the survival and pathogenesis of its host. These findings will further our understanding on the evolution of these phages, and will also facilitate studies on development of new phage vectors and therapeutic agents to control infections caused by S. flexneri.
PMCID: PMC3851460  PMID: 24090466
Shigella flexneri; Bacteriophage; O-antigen modification; Serotype conversion
11.  Propionibacterium acnes Bacteriophages Display Limited Genetic Diversity and Broad Killing Activity against Bacterial Skin Isolates 
mBio  2012;3(5):e00279-12.
Investigation of the human microbiome has revealed diverse and complex microbial communities at distinct anatomic sites. The microbiome of the human sebaceous follicle provides a tractable model in which to study its dominant bacterial inhabitant, Propionibacterium acnes, which is thought to contribute to the pathogenesis of the human disease acne. To explore the diversity of the bacteriophages that infect P. acnes, 11 P. acnes phages were isolated from the sebaceous follicles of donors with healthy skin or acne and their genomes were sequenced. Comparative genomic analysis of the P. acnes phage population, which spans a 30-year temporal period and a broad geographic range, reveals striking similarity in terms of genome length, percent GC content, nucleotide identity (>85%), and gene content. This was unexpected, given the far-ranging diversity observed in virtually all other phage populations. Although the P. acnes phages display a broad host range against clinical isolates of P. acnes, two bacterial isolates were resistant to many of these phages. Moreover, the patterns of phage resistance correlate closely with the presence of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat elements in the bacteria that target a specific subset of phages, conferring a system of prokaryotic innate immunity. The limited diversity of the P. acnes bacteriophages, which may relate to the unique evolutionary constraints imposed by the lipid-rich anaerobic environment in which their bacterial hosts reside, points to the potential utility of phage-based antimicrobial therapy for acne.
Propionibacterium acnes is a dominant member of the skin microflora and has also been implicated in the pathogenesis of acne; however, little is known about the bacteriophages that coexist with and infect this bacterium. Here we present the novel genome sequences of 11 P. acnes phages, thereby substantially increasing the amount of available genomic information for this phage population. Surprisingly, we find that, unlike other well-studied bacteriophages, P. acnes phages are highly homogeneous and show a striking lack of genetic diversity, which is perhaps related to their unique and restricted habitat. They also share a broad ability to kill clinical isolates of P. acnes; phage resistance is not prevalent, but when detected, it appears to be conferred by chromosomally encoded immunity elements within the host genome. We believe that these phages display numerous features that would make them ideal candidates for the development of a phage-based therapy for acne.
PMCID: PMC3448167  PMID: 23015740
12.  Automated classification of tailed bacteriophages according to their neck organization 
BMC Genomics  2014;15(1):1027.
The genetic diversity observed among bacteriophages remains a major obstacle for the identification of homologs and the comparison of their functional modules. In the structural module, although several classes of homologous proteins contributing to the head and tail structure can be detected, proteins of the head-to-tail connection (or neck) are generally more divergent. Yet, molecular analyses of a few tailed phages belonging to different morphological classes suggested that only a limited number of structural solutions are used in order to produce a functional virion. To challenge this hypothesis and analyze proteins diversity at the virion neck, we developed a specific computational strategy to cope with sequence divergence in phage proteins. We searched for homologs of a set of proteins encoded in the structural module using a phage learning database.
We show that using a combination of iterative profile-profile comparison and gene context analyses, we can identify a set of head, neck and tail proteins in most tailed bacteriophages of our database. Classification of phages based on neck protein sequences delineates 4 Types corresponding to known morphological subfamilies. Further analysis of the most abundant Type 1 yields 10 Clusters characterized by consistent sets of head, neck and tail proteins. We developed Virfam, a webserver that automatically identifies proteins of the phage head-neck-tail module and assign phages to the most closely related cluster of phages. This server was tested against 624 new phages from the NCBI database. 93% of the tailed and unclassified phages could be assigned to our head-neck-tail based categories, thus highlighting the large representativeness of the identified virion architectures. Types and Clusters delineate consistent subgroups of Caudovirales, which correlate with several virion properties.
Our method and webserver have the capacity to automatically classify most tailed phages, detect their structural module, assign a function to a set of their head, neck and tail genes, provide their morphologic subtype and localize these phages within a “head-neck-tail” based classification. It should enable analysis of large sets of phage genomes. In particular, it should contribute to the classification of the abundant unknown viruses found on assembled contigs of metagenomic samples.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/1471-2164-15-1027) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4362835  PMID: 25428721
Bacteriophage; Profile-profile comparison; Virion; Gene organization; Evolution
13.  Genomic comparison of 93 Bacillus phages reveals 12 clusters, 14 singletons and remarkable diversity 
BMC Genomics  2014;15(1):855.
The Bacillus genus of Firmicutes bacteria is ubiquitous in nature and includes one of the best characterized model organisms, B. subtilis, as well as medically significant human pathogens, the most notorious being B. anthracis and B. cereus. As the most abundant living entities on the planet, bacteriophages are known to heavily influence the ecology and evolution of their hosts, including providing virulence factors. Thus, the identification and analysis of Bacillus phages is critical to understanding the evolution of Bacillus species, including pathogenic strains.
Whole genome nucleotide and proteome comparison of the 93 extant Bacillus phages revealed 12 distinct clusters, 28 subclusters and 14 singleton phages. Host analysis of these clusters supports host boundaries at the subcluster level and suggests phages as vectors for genetic transfer within the Bacillus cereus group, with B. anthracis as a distant member of the group. Analysis of the proteins conserved among these phages reveals enormous diversity and the uncharacterized nature of these phages, with a total of 4,922 protein families (phams) of which only 951 (19%) had a predicted function. In addition, 3,058 (62%) of phams were orphams (phams containing a gene product from a single phage). The most populated phams were those encoding proteins involved in DNA metabolism, virion structure and assembly, cell lysis, or host function. These included several genes that may contribute to the pathogenicity of Bacillus strains.
This analysis provides a basis for understanding and characterizing Bacillus phages and other related phages as well as their contributions to the evolution and pathogenicity of Bacillus cereus group bacteria. The presence of sparsely populated clusters, the high ratio of singletons to clusters, and the large number of uncharacterized, conserved proteins confirms the need for more Bacillus phage isolation in order to understand the full extent of their diversity as well as their impact on host evolution.
PMCID: PMC4197329  PMID: 25280881
Bacteriophage; Phage; Cluster; Bacillus
14.  Immunogenicity Studies of Proteins Forming the T4 Phage Head Surface 
Journal of Virology  2014;88(21):12551-12557.
Advances in phage therapy and novel applications of phages in biotechnology encourage interest in phage impact on human and animal immunity. Here we present comparative studies of immunogenic properties of T4 phage head surface proteins gp23*, gp24*, Hoc, and Soc, both as elements of the phage capsid and as isolated agents. Studies comprise evaluation of specific antibodies in the human population, analysis of the proteins' impact on the primary and secondary responses in mice, and the effect of specific antibodies on phage antibacterial activity in vitro and in vivo in mice. In humans, natural antibodies specific to T4-like phages were abundant (81% of investigated sera). Among those, significantly elevated levels of IgG antibodies only against major head protein (gp23*) were found, which probably reflected cross-reactions of T4 with antibodies induced by other T4-like phages. Both IgM and IgG antibodies were induced mostly by gp23* and Hoc, while weak (gp24*) and very weak (Soc) reactivities of other head proteins were noticed. Thus, T4 head proteins that markedly contribute to immunological memory to the phage are highly antigenic outer capsid protein (Hoc) and major capsid protein (gp23*). Specific anti-gp23* and anti-Hoc antibodies substantially decreased T4 phage activity in vitro and to some extent in vivo. Cooperating with antibodies, the immune complement system also contributed to annihilating phages.
IMPORTANCE Current descriptions of phage immunogenicity and its biological consequences are still vague and incomplete; thus, the central problem of this work is timely and may have strong practical implications. Here is presented the very first description of the contribution of bacteriophage proteins to immunological memory of the phage. Understanding of interactions between phages and mammalian immunology may help in biotechnological adaptations of phages for therapeutic requirements as well as for better appreciation of phage ecology and their role in the biosphere.
PMCID: PMC4248953  PMID: 25142581
15.  Cluster M Mycobacteriophages Bongo, PegLeg, and Rey with Unusually Large Repertoires of tRNA Isotypes 
Journal of Virology  2014;88(5):2461-2480.
Genomic analysis of a large set of phages infecting the common host Mycobacterium smegmatis mc2155 shows that they span considerable genetic diversity. There are more than 20 distinct types that lack nucleotide similarity with each other, and there is considerable diversity within most of the groups. Three newly isolated temperate mycobacteriophages, Bongo, PegLeg, and Rey, constitute a new group (cluster M), with the closely related phages Bongo and PegLeg forming subcluster M1 and the more distantly related Rey forming subcluster M2. The cluster M mycobacteriophages have siphoviral morphologies with unusually long tails, are homoimmune, and have larger than average genomes (80.2 to 83.7 kbp). They exhibit a variety of features not previously described in other mycobacteriophages, including noncanonical genome architectures and several unusual sets of conserved repeated sequences suggesting novel regulatory systems for both transcription and translation. In addition to containing transfer-messenger RNA and RtcB-like RNA ligase genes, their genomes encode 21 to 24 tRNA genes encompassing complete or nearly complete sets of isotypes. We predict that these tRNAs are used in late lytic growth, likely compensating for the degradation or inadequacy of host tRNAs. They may represent a complete set of tRNAs necessary for late lytic growth, especially when taken together with the apparent lack of codons in the same late genes that correspond to tRNAs that the genomes of the phages do not obviously encode.
IMPORTANCE The bacteriophage population is vast, dynamic, and old and plays a central role in bacterial pathogenicity. We know surprisingly little about the genetic diversity of the phage population, although metagenomic and phage genome sequencing indicates that it is great. Probing the depth of genetic diversity of phages of a common host, Mycobacterium smegmatis, provides a higher resolution of the phage population and how it has evolved. Three new phages constituting a new cluster M further expand the diversity of the mycobacteriophages and introduce novel features. As such, they provide insights into phage genome architecture, virion structure, and gene regulation at the transcriptional and translational levels.
PMCID: PMC3958112  PMID: 24335314
16.  CRISPR-Cas: an efficient tool for genome engineering of virulent bacteriophages 
Nucleic Acids Research  2014;42(14):9504-9513.
Bacteriophages are now widely recognized as major players in a wide variety of ecosystems. Novel genes are often identified in newly isolated phages as well as in environmental metavirome studies. Most of these novel viral genes have unknown functions but appear to be coding for small, non-structural proteins. To understand their biological role, very efficient genetic tools are required to modify them, especially in the genome of virulent phages. We first show that specific point mutations and large deletions can be engineered in the genome of the virulent phage 2972 using the Streptococcus thermophilus CRISPR-Cas Type II-A system as a selective pressure to increase recombination efficiencies. Of significance, all the plaques tested contained recombinant phages with the desired mutation. Furthermore, we show that the CRISPR-Cas engineering system can be used to efficiently introduce a functional methyltransferase gene into a virulent phage genome. Finally, synthetic CRISPR bacteriophage insensitive mutants were constructed by cloning a spacer-repeat unit in a low-copy vector illustrating the possibility to target multiple regions of the phage genome. Taken together, this data shows that the CRISPR-Cas system is an efficient and adaptable tool for editing the otherwise intractable genomes of virulent phages and to better understand phage-host interactions.
PMCID: PMC4132740  PMID: 25063295
17.  Genomic Investigation of Lysogen Formation and Host Lysis Systems of the Salmonella Temperate Bacteriophage SPN9CC 
To understand phage infection and host cell lysis mechanisms in pathogenic Salmonella, a novel Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium-targeting bacteriophage, SPN9CC, belonging to the Podoviridae family was isolated and characterized. The phage infects S. Typhimurium via the O antigen of lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and forms clear plaques with cloudy centers due to lysogen formation. Phylogenetic analysis of phage major capsid proteins revealed that this phage is a member of the lysogen-forming P22-like phage group. However, comparative genomic analysis of SPN9CC with P22-like phages indicated that their lysogeny control regions and host cell lysis gene clusters show very low levels of identity, suggesting that lysogen formation and host cell lysis mechanisms may be diverse among phages in this group. Analysis of the expression of SPN9CC host cell lysis genes encoding holin, endolysin, and Rz/Rz1-like proteins individually or in combinations in S. Typhimurium and Escherichia coli hosts revealed that collaboration of these lysis proteins is important for the lysis of both hosts and that holin is a key protein. To further investigate the role of the lysogeny control region in phage SPN9CC, a ΔcI mutant (SPN9CCM) of phage SPN9CC was constructed. The mutant does not produce a cloudy center in the plaques, suggesting that this mutant phage is virulent and no longer temperate. Subsequent comparative one-step growth analysis and challenge assays revealed that SPN9CCM has shorter eclipse/latency periods and a larger burst size, as well as higher host cell lysis activity, than SPN9CC. The present work indicates the possibility of engineering temperate phages as promising biocontrol agents similar to virulent phages.
PMCID: PMC3911004  PMID: 24185850
18.  Erratum to: genomic comparison of 93 Bacillus phages reveals 12 clusters, 14 singletons and remarkable diversity 
BMC Genomics  2014;15(1):1184.
The Bacillus genus of Firmicutes bacteria is ubiquitous in nature and includes one of the best characterized model organisms, B. subtilis, as well as medically significant human pathogens, the most notorious being B. anthracis and B. cereus. As the most abundant living entities on the planet, bacteriophages are known to heavily influence the ecology and evolution of their hosts, including providing virulence factors. Thus, the identification and analysis of Bacillus phages is critical to understanding the evolution of Bacillus species, including pathogenic strains.
Whole genome nucleotide and proteome comparison of the 83 extant, fully sequenced Bacillus phages revealed 10 distinct clusters, 24 subclusters and 15 singleton phages. Host analysis of these clusters supports host boundaries at the subcluster level and suggests phages as vectors for genetic transfer within the Bacillus cereus group, with B. anthracis as a distant member. Analysis of the proteins conserved among these phages reveals enormous diversity and the uncharacterized nature of these phages, with a total of 4,442 protein families (phams) of which only 894 (20%) had a predicted function. In addition, 2,583 (58%) of phams were orphams (phams containing a single member). The most populated phams were those encoding proteins involved in DNA metabolism, virion structure and assembly, cell lysis, or host function. These included several genes that may contribute to the pathogenicity of Bacillus strains.
This analysis provides a basis for understanding and characterizing Bacillus and other related phages as well as their contributions to the evolution and pathogenicity of Bacillus cereus group bacteria. The presence of sparsely populated clusters, the high ratio of singletons to clusters, and the large number of uncharacterized, conserved proteins confirms the need for more Bacillus phage isolation in order to understand the full extent of their diversity as well as their impact on host evolution.
PMCID: PMC4464726  PMID: 25547158
Bacteriophage; Phage; Cluster; Bacillus
19.  Characterization of the Genome of the Polyvalent Lytic Bacteriophage GTE2, Which Has Potential for Biocontrol of Gordonia-, Rhodococcus-, and Nocardia-Stabilized Foams in Activated Sludge Plants ▿ † 
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  2011;77(12):3923-3929.
Hydrophobic Actinobacteria are commonly associated with the stabilization of foams in activated sludge systems. One possible attractive approach to control these foam-stabilizing organisms is the use of specific bacteriophages. We describe the genome characterization of a novel polyvalent DNA phage, GTE2, isolated from activated sludge. This phage is lytic for Gordonia terrae, Rhodococcus globerulus, Rhodococcus erythropolis, Rhodococcus erythropolis, Nocardia otitidiscaviarum, and Nocardia brasiliensis. Phage GTE2 belongs to the family Siphoviridae, possessing a characteristic icosahedral head encapsulating a double-stranded DNA linear genome (45,530 bp) having 10-bp 3′-protruding cohesive ends. The genome sequence is 98% unique at the DNA level and contains 57 putative genes. The genome can be divided into two components, where the first is modular and encodes phage structural proteins and lysis genes. The second is not modular, and the genes harbored there are involved in DNA replication, repair, and metabolism. Some have no known function. GTE2 shows promising results in controlling stable foam production by its host bacteria under laboratory conditions, suggesting that it may prove useful in the field as a biocontrol agent.
PMCID: PMC3131622  PMID: 21498753
20.  Genomic Evidence for the Evolution of Streptococcus equi: Host Restriction, Increased Virulence, and Genetic Exchange with Human Pathogens 
PLoS Pathogens  2009;5(3):e1000346.
The continued evolution of bacterial pathogens has major implications for both human and animal disease, but the exchange of genetic material between host-restricted pathogens is rarely considered. Streptococcus equi subspecies equi (S. equi) is a host-restricted pathogen of horses that has evolved from the zoonotic pathogen Streptococcus equi subspecies zooepidemicus (S. zooepidemicus). These pathogens share approximately 80% genome sequence identity with the important human pathogen Streptococcus pyogenes. We sequenced and compared the genomes of S. equi 4047 and S. zooepidemicus H70 and screened S. equi and S. zooepidemicus strains from around the world to uncover evidence of the genetic events that have shaped the evolution of the S. equi genome and led to its emergence as a host-restricted pathogen. Our analysis provides evidence of functional loss due to mutation and deletion, coupled with pathogenic specialization through the acquisition of bacteriophage encoding a phospholipase A2 toxin, and four superantigens, and an integrative conjugative element carrying a novel iron acquisition system with similarity to the high pathogenicity island of Yersinia pestis. We also highlight that S. equi, S. zooepidemicus, and S. pyogenes share a common phage pool that enhances cross-species pathogen evolution. We conclude that the complex interplay of functional loss, pathogenic specialization, and genetic exchange between S. equi, S. zooepidemicus, and S. pyogenes continues to influence the evolution of these important streptococci.
Author Summary
Streptococci colonize a diverse range of animals and tissues, and this association is normally harmless. Occasionally some strains of streptococci have an increased ability to cause disease that is often associated with a reduction in the ability to colonize and the acquisition of new genes, which enable the strain to inhabit a new niche. S. equi is the causative agent of strangles, one of the most frequently diagnosed and feared infectious diseases of horses, which is believed to have evolved from the closely related and usually harmless S. zooepidemicus. We aim to understand the mechanisms by which S. equi causes disease by studying and comparing the genomes of these different strains. Here we identify specific genes that have been lost and gained by S. equi, which may have directed its transition from colonizer to invader. Several of the novel genes acquired by S. equi have also been identified in strains of the closely related bacterium S. pyogenes that are associated with increased morbidity and mortality in humans. Our research highlights the role of genetic exchange in cross-species bacterial evolution and argues that the evolution of human pathogens cannot be considered in isolation.
PMCID: PMC2654543  PMID: 19325880
21.  Sequence Analysis of Leuconostoc mesenteroides Bacteriophage Φ1-A4 Isolated from an Industrial Vegetable Fermentation▿  
Vegetable fermentations rely on the proper succession of a variety of lactic acid bacteria (LAB). Leuconostoc mesenteroides initiates fermentation. As fermentation proceeds, L. mesenteroides dies off and other LAB complete the fermentation. Phages infecting L. mesenteroides may significantly influence the die-off of L. mesenteroides. However, no L. mesenteroides phages have been previously genetically characterized. Knowledge of more phage genome sequences may provide new insights into phage genomics, phage evolution, and phage-host interactions. We have determined the complete genome sequence of L. mesenteroides phage Φ1-A4, isolated from an industrial sauerkraut fermentation. The phage possesses a linear, double-stranded DNA genome consisting of 29,508 bp with a G+C content of 36%. Fifty open reading frames (ORFs) were predicted. Putative functions were assigned to 26 ORFs (52%), including 5 ORFs of structural proteins. The phage genome was modularly organized, containing DNA replication, DNA-packaging, head and tail morphogenesis, cell lysis, and DNA regulation/modification modules. In silico analyses showed that Φ1-A4 is a unique lytic phage with a large-scale genome inversion (∼30% of the genome). The genome inversion encompassed the lysis module, part of the structural protein module, and a cos site. The endolysin gene was flanked by two holin genes. The tail morphogenesis module was interspersed with cell lysis genes and other genes with unknown functions. The predicted amino acid sequences of the phage proteins showed little similarity to other phages, but functional analyses showed that Φ1-A4 clusters with several Lactococcus phages. To our knowledge, Φ1-A4 is the first genetically characterized L. mesenteroides phage.
PMCID: PMC2838018  PMID: 20118355
22.  Targeting Antibacterial Agents by Using Drug-Carrying Filamentous Bacteriophages 
Bacteriophages have been used for more than a century for (unconventional) therapy of bacterial infections, for half a century as tools in genetic research, for 2 decades as tools for discovery of specific target-binding proteins, and for nearly a decade as tools for vaccination or as gene delivery vehicles. Here we present a novel application of filamentous bacteriophages (phages) as targeted drug carriers for the eradication of (pathogenic) bacteria. The phages are genetically modified to display a targeting moiety on their surface and are used to deliver a large payload of a cytotoxic drug to the target bacteria. The drug is linked to the phages by means of chemical conjugation through a labile linker subject to controlled release. In the conjugated state, the drug is in fact a prodrug devoid of cytotoxic activity and is activated following its dissociation from the phage at the target site in a temporally and spatially controlled manner. Our model target was Staphylococcus aureus, and the model drug was the antibiotic chloramphenicol. We demonstrated the potential of using filamentous phages as universal drug carriers for targetable cells involved in disease. Our approach replaces the selectivity of the drug itself with target selectivity borne by the targeting moiety, which may allow the reintroduction of nonspecific drugs that have thus far been excluded from antibacterial use (because of toxicity or low selectivity). Reintroduction of such drugs into the arsenal of useful tools may help to combat emerging bacterial antibiotic resistance.
PMCID: PMC1479106  PMID: 16723570
23.  Synonymous codon usage in forty staphylococcal phages identifies the factors controlling codon usage variation and the phages suitable for phage therapy 
Bioinformation  2012;8(24):1187-1194.
The immergence and dissemination of multidrug-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus in recent years have expedited the research on the discovery of novel anti-staphylococcal agents promptly. Bacteriophages have long been showing tremendous potentialities in curing the infections caused by various pathogenic bacteria including S. aureus. Thus far, only a few virulent bacteriophages, which do not carry any toxin-encoding gene but are capable of eradicating staphylococcal infections, were reported. Based on the codon usage analysis of sixteen S. aureus phages, previously three phages were suggested to be useful as the anti-staphylococcal agents. To search for additional S. aureus phages suitable for phage therapy, relative synonymous codon usage bias has been investigated in the protein-coding genes of forty new staphylococcal phages. All phages appeared to carry A and T ending codons. Several factors such as mutational pressure, translational selection and gene length seemed to be responsible for the codon usage variation in the phages. Codon usage indeed varied phage to phage. Of the phages, phages G1, Twort, 66 and Sap-2 may be extremely lytic in nature as majority of their genes possess high translational efficiency, indicating that these phages may be employed in curing staphylococcal infections.
PMCID: PMC3530870  PMID: 23275718
Staphylococcal phage; Synonymous codon usage; Translational selection; Mutational bias; Phage therapy
24.  The Tripartite Associations between Bacteriophage, Wolbachia, and Arthropods 
PLoS Pathogens  2006;2(5):e43.
By manipulating arthropod reproduction worldwide, the heritable endosymbiont Wolbachia has spread to pandemic levels. Little is known about the microbial basis of cytoplasmic incompatibility (CI) except that bacterial densities and percentages of infected sperm cysts associate with incompatibility strength. The recent discovery of a temperate bacteriophage (WO-B) of Wolbachia containing ankyrin-encoding genes and virulence factors has led to intensifying debate that bacteriophage WO-B induces CI. However, current hypotheses have not considered the separate roles that lytic and lysogenic phage might have on bacterial fitness and phenotype. Here we describe a set of quantitative approaches to characterize phage densities and its associations with bacterial densities and CI. We enumerated genome copy number of phage WO-B and Wolbachia and CI penetrance in supergroup A- and B-infected males of the parasitoid wasp Nasonia vitripennis. We report several findings: (1) variability in CI strength for A-infected males is positively associated with bacterial densities, as expected under the bacterial density model of CI, (2) phage and bacterial densities have a significant inverse association, as expected for an active lytic infection, and (3) CI strength and phage densities are inversely related in A-infected males; similarly, males expressing incomplete CI have significantly higher phage densities than males expressing complete CI. Ultrastructural analyses indicate that approximately 12% of the A Wolbachia have phage particles, and aggregations of these particles can putatively occur outside the Wolbachia cell. Physical interactions were observed between approximately 16% of the Wolbachia cells and spermatid tails. The results support a low to moderate frequency of lytic development in Wolbachia and an overall negative density relationship between bacteriophage and Wolbachia. The findings motivate a novel phage density model of CI in which lytic phage repress Wolbachia densities and therefore reproductive parasitism. We conclude that phage, Wolbachia, and arthropods form a tripartite symbiotic association in which all three are integral to understanding the biology of this widespread endosymbiosis. Clarifying the roles of lytic and lysogenic phage development in Wolbachia biology will effectively structure inquiries into this research topic.
Symbiotic bacteria that are maternally inherited are widespread in terrestrial invertebrates. Such bacteria infect the cells of reproductive tissues and can have important evolutionary and developmental effects on the host. Often these inherited symbionts develop beneficial relationships with their hosts, but some species can also selfishly alter invertebrate reproduction to increase the numbers of infected females (the transmitting sex of the bacteria) in the population. Bacterial-mediated distortions such as male-killing, feminization, parthenogenesis induction, and cytoplasmic incompatibility are collectively known as “reproductive parasitism.” In this article, the investigators show that the associations between the most common reproductive parasite in the biosphere (Wolbachia) and a parasitic wasp host are affected by a mobile element—a temperate bacteriophage of Wolbachia. In contrast to recent reports that suggest bacteriophage WO-B may induce reproductive parasitism, the authors' quantitative and ultrastructural analyses indicate that lytic phage WO-B are lethal and therefore associate with a reduction in both Wolbachia densities and reproductive parasitism. Based on these data, the authors propose a phage density model in which lytic phage development specifically leads to a reduction, rather than induction, of reproductive parisitism. The study is among the first investigations to show that lytic bacteriophage inversely associate with the densities and phenotype of an obligate intracellular bacterium.
PMCID: PMC1463016  PMID: 16710453
25.  Prokaryotic homologs of Argonaute proteins are predicted to function as key components of a novel system of defense against mobile genetic elements 
Biology Direct  2009;4:29.
In eukaryotes, RNA interference (RNAi) is a major mechanism of defense against viruses and transposable elements as well of regulating translation of endogenous mRNAs. The RNAi systems recognize the target RNA molecules via small guide RNAs that are completely or partially complementary to a region of the target. Key components of the RNAi systems are proteins of the Argonaute-PIWI family some of which function as slicers, the nucleases that cleave the target RNA that is base-paired to a guide RNA. Numerous prokaryotes possess the CRISPR-associated system (CASS) of defense against phages and plasmids that is, in part, mechanistically analogous but not homologous to eukaryotic RNAi systems. Many prokaryotes also encode homologs of Argonaute-PIWI proteins but their functions remain unknown.
We present a detailed analysis of Argonaute-PIWI protein sequences and the genomic neighborhoods of the respective genes in prokaryotes. Whereas eukaryotic Ago/PIWI proteins always contain PAZ (oligonucleotide binding) and PIWI (active or inactivated nuclease) domains, the prokaryotic Argonaute homologs (pAgos) fall into two major groups in which the PAZ domain is either present or absent. The monophyly of each group is supported by a phylogenetic analysis of the conserved PIWI-domains. Almost all pAgos that lack a PAZ domain appear to be inactivated, and the respective genes are associated with a variety of predicted nucleases in putative operons. An additional, uncharacterized domain that is fused to various nucleases appears to be a unique signature of operons encoding the short (lacking PAZ) pAgo form. By contrast, almost all PAZ-domain containing pAgos are predicted to be active nucleases. Some proteins of this group (e.g., that from Aquifex aeolicus) have been experimentally shown to possess nuclease activity, and are not typically associated with genes for other (putative) nucleases. Given these observations, the apparent extensive horizontal transfer of pAgo genes, and their common, statistically significant over-representation in genomic neighborhoods enriched in genes encoding proteins involved in the defense against phages and/or plasmids, we hypothesize that pAgos are key components of a novel class of defense systems. The PAZ-domain containing pAgos are predicted to directly destroy virus or plasmid nucleic acids via their nuclease activity, whereas the apparently inactivated, PAZ-lacking pAgos could be structural subunits of protein complexes that contain, as active moieties, the putative nucleases that we predict to be co-expressed with these pAgos. All these nucleases are predicted to be DNA endonucleases, so it seems most probable that the putative novel phage/plasmid-defense system targets phage DNA rather than mRNAs. Given that in eukaryotic RNAi systems, the PAZ domain binds a guide RNA and positions it on the complementary region of the target, we further speculate that pAgos function on a similar principle (the guide being either DNA or RNA), and that the uncharacterized domain found in putative operons with the short forms of pAgos is a functional substitute for the PAZ domain.
The hypothesis that pAgos are key components of a novel prokaryotic immune system that employs guide RNA or DNA molecules to degrade nucleic acids of invading mobile elements implies a functional analogy with the prokaryotic CASS and a direct evolutionary connection with eukaryotic RNAi. The predictions of the hypothesis including both the activities of pAgos and those of the associated endonucleases are readily amenable to experimental tests.
This article was reviewed by Daniel Haft, Martijn Huynen, and Chris Ponting.
PMCID: PMC2743648  PMID: 19706170

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