Intragenic tandem repeats occur throughout all domains of life and impart functional and structural variability to diverse translation products. Repeat proteins confer distinctive surface phenotypes to many unicellular organisms, including those with minimal genomes such as the wall-less bacterial monoderms, Mollicutes. One such repeat pattern in this clade is distributed in a manner suggesting its exchange by horizontal gene transfer (HGT). Expanding genome sequence databases reveal the pattern in a widening range of bacteria, and recently among eucaryotic microbes. We examined the genomic flux and consequences of the motif by determining its distribution, predicted structural features and association with membrane-targeted proteins.
Using a refined hidden Markov model, we document a 25-residue protein sequence motif tandemly arrayed in variable-number repeats in ORFs lacking assigned functions. It appears sporadically in unicellular microbes from disparate bacterial and eucaryotic clades, representing diverse lifestyles and ecological niches that include host parasitic, marine and extreme environments. Tracts of the repeats predict a malleable configuration of recurring domains, with conserved hydrophobic residues forming an amphipathic secondary structure in which hydrophilic residues endow extensive sequence variation. Many ORFs with these domains also have membrane-targeting sequences that predict assorted topologies; others may comprise reservoirs of sequence variants. We demonstrate expressed variants among surface lipoproteins that distinguish closely related animal pathogens belonging to a subgroup of the Mollicutes. DNA sequences encoding the tandem domains display dyad symmetry. Moreover, in some taxa the domains occur in ORFs selectively associated with mobile elements. These features, a punctate phylogenetic distribution, and different patterns of dispersal in genomes of related taxa, suggest that the repeat may be disseminated by HGT and intra-genomic shuffling.
We describe novel features of PARCELs (Palindromic Amphipathic Repeat Coding ELements), a set of widely distributed repeat protein domains and coding sequences that were likely acquired through HGT by diverse unicellular microbes, further mobilized and diversified within genomes, and co-opted for expression in the membrane proteome of some taxa. Disseminated by multiple gene-centric vehicles, ORFs harboring these elements enhance accessory gene pools as part of the "mobilome" connecting genomes of various clades, in taxa sharing common niches.