Mollicutes is a class of parasitic bacteria that have evolved from a common Firmicutes ancestor mostly by massive genome reduction. With genomes under 1 Mbp in size, most Mollicutes species retain the capacity to replicate and grow autonomously. The major goal of this work was to identify the minimal set of proteins that can sustain ribosome biogenesis and translation of the genetic code in these bacteria. Using the experimentally validated genes from the model bacteria Escherichia coli and Bacillus subtilis as input, genes encoding proteins of the core translation machinery were predicted in 39 distinct Mollicutes species, 33 of which are culturable. The set of 260 input genes encodes proteins involved in ribosome biogenesis, tRNA maturation and aminoacylation, as well as proteins cofactors required for mRNA translation and RNA decay. A core set of 104 of these proteins is found in all species analyzed. Genes encoding proteins involved in post-translational modifications of ribosomal proteins and translation cofactors, post-transcriptional modifications of t+rRNA, in ribosome assembly and RNA degradation are the most frequently lost. As expected, genes coding for aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases, ribosomal proteins and initiation, elongation and termination factors are the most persistent (i.e. conserved in a majority of genomes). Enzymes introducing nucleotides modifications in the anticodon loop of tRNA, in helix 44 of 16S rRNA and in helices 69 and 80 of 23S rRNA, all essential for decoding and facilitating peptidyl transfer, are maintained in all species. Reconstruction of genome evolution in Mollicutes revealed that, beside many gene losses, occasional gains by horizontal gene transfer also occurred. This analysis not only showed that slightly different solutions for preserving a functional, albeit minimal, protein synthetizing machinery have emerged in these successive rounds of reductive evolution but also has broad implications in guiding the reconstruction of a minimal cell by synthetic biology approaches.
In all cells, proteins are synthesized from the message encoded by mRNA using complex machineries involving many proteins and RNAs. In this process, named translation, the ribosome plays a central role. The elements involved in both ribosome biogenesis and its function are extremely conserved in all organisms from the simplest bacteria to mammalian cells. Most of the 260 known proteins involved in translation have been identified and studied in the bacteria Escherichia coli and Bacillus subtilis, two common cellular models in biology. However, comparative genomics has shown that the translation protein set can be much smaller. This is true for bacteria belonging to the class Mollicutes that are characterized by reduced genomes and hence considered as models for minimal cells. Using homology inference approach and expert analyses, we identified the translation apparatus proteins for 39 of these organisms. Although striking variations were found from one group of species to another, some Mollicutes species require half as many proteins as E. coli or B. subtilis. This analysis allowed us to determine a set of proteins necessary for translation in Mollicutes and define the translation apparatus that would be required in a cellular chassis mimicking a minimal bacterial cell.