The relationship between the selection affecting codon usage and selection on protein sequences of orthologous genes in diverse groups of bacteria and archaea was examined by using the Alignable Tight Genome Clusters database of prokaryote genomes. The codon usage bias is generally low, with 57.5% of the gene-specific optimal codon frequencies (Fopt) being below 0.55. This apparent weak selection on codon usage contrasts with the strong purifying selection on amino acid sequences, with 65.8% of the gene-specific dN/dS ratios being below 0.1. For most of the genomes compared, a limited but statistically significant negative correlation between Fopt and dN/dS was observed, which is indicative of a link between selection on protein sequence and selection on codon usage. The strength of the coupling between the protein level selection and codon usage bias showed a strong positive correlation with the genomic GC content. Combined with previous observations on the selection for GC-rich codons in bacteria and archaea with GC-rich genomes, these findings suggest that selection for translational fine-tuning could be an important factor in microbial evolution that drives the evolution of genome GC content away from mutational equilibrium. This type of selection is particularly pronounced in slowly evolving, “high-status” genes. A significantly stronger link between the two aspects of selection is observed in free-living bacteria than in parasitic bacteria and in genes encoding metabolic enzymes and transporters than in informational genes. These differences might reflect the special importance of translational fine-tuning for the adaptability of gene expression to environmental changes. The results of this work establish the coupling between protein level selection and selection for translational optimization as a distinct and potentially important factor in microbial evolution.
Selection affects the evolution of microbial genomes at many levels, including both the structure of proteins and the regulation of their production. Here we demonstrate the coupling between the selection on protein sequences and the optimization of codon usage in a broad range of bacteria and archaea. The strength of this coupling varies over a wide range and strongly and positively correlates with the genomic GC content. The cause(s) of the evolution of high GC content is a long-standing open question, given the universal mutational bias toward AT. We propose that optimization of codon usage could be one of the key factors that determine the evolution of GC-rich genomes. This work establishes the coupling between selection at the level of protein sequence and at the level of codon choice optimization as a distinct aspect of genome evolution.
A new study shows that the expression of two classes of repetitive elements in the mouse genome is controlled through two complementary mechanisms: DNA methylation and p53-mediated transcription suppression.¹ When both lines of defense fail, expression of the repeats yields large quantities of double-stranded RNA, triggering interferon response that leads to caspase-dependent cell death. These notable findings highlight two fundamental trends: tight coupling of defense and cell death mechanisms that appears to be universal in cellular life and the exploitation of the expression of “junk” DNA as a signal triggering “altruistic” cell suicide.
p53; transposable elements; SINE repeats; DNA methylation; interferon response
A stochastic, agent-based mathematical model of the coevolution of the archaeal and bacterial adaptive immunity system, CRISPR-Cas, and lytic viruses shows that CRISPR-Cas immunity can stabilize the virus-host coexistence rather than leading to the extinction of the virus. In the model, CRISPR-Cas immunity does not specifically promote viral diversity, presumably because the selection pressure on each single proto-spacer is too weak. However, the overall virus diversity in the presence of CRISPR-Cas grows due to the increase of the host and, accordingly, the virus population size. Above a threshold value of total viral diversity, which is proportional to the viral mutation rate and population size, the CRISPR-Cas system becomes ineffective and is lost due to the associated fitness cost. Our previous modeling study has suggested that the ubiquity of CRISPR-Cas in hyperthermophiles, which contrasts its comparative low prevalence in mesophiles, is due to lower rates of mutation fixation in thermal habitats. The present findings offer a complementary, simpler perspective on this contrast through the larger population sizes of mesophiles compared to hyperthermophiles, because of which CRISPR-Cas can become ineffective in mesophiles. The efficacy of CRISPR-Cas sharply increases with the number of proto-spacers per viral genome, potentially explaining the low information content of the proto-spacer-associated motif (PAM) that is required for spacer acquisition by CRISPR-Cas because a higher specificity would restrict the number of spacers available to CRISPR-Cas, thus hampering immunity. The very existence of the PAM might reflect the tradeoff between the requirement of diverse spacers for efficient immunity and avoidance of autoimmunity.
Any scenario of the transition from chemistry to biology should include an “energy module” because life can exist only when supported by energy flow(s). We addressed the problem of primordial energetics by combining physico-chemical considerations with phylogenomic analysis. We propose that the first replicators could use abiotically formed, exceptionally photostable activated nucleotides both as building blocks and as the main energy source. Nucleoside triphosphates could replace cyclic nucleotides as the principal energy-rich compounds at the stage of the first cells, presumably because the metal chelates of nucleoside triphosphates penetrated membranes much better than the respective metal complexes of nucleoside monophosphates. The ability to exploit natural energy flows for biogenic production of energy-rich molecules could evolve only gradually, after the emergence of sophisticated enzymes and ion-tight membranes. We argue that, in the course of evolution, sodium-dependent membrane energetics preceded the proton-based energetics which evolved independently in bacteria and archaea.
The question whether adaptation follows a deterministic route largely prescribed by the environment or can proceed along a large number of alternative trajectories has engaged extensive research over the recent years. Experimental evolution studies enabled by advances in high throughput techniques for genome sequencing and manipulation, along with increasingly detailed mathematical modeling of fitness landscapes, are beginning to allow quantitative exploration of the repeatability of evolutionary trajectories. It is becoming clear that evolutionary trajectories in static correlated fitness landscapes are substantially non-random but the relative contributions of determinism and stochasticity in the evolution of specific phenotypes strongly depend on the specific conditions, particularly the magnitude of the selective pressure and the number of available beneficial mutations.
evolutionary trajectory; predictability of evolution; fitness landscape; divergence of trajectories
Accurate inference of orthologous genes is a pre-requisite for most comparative genomics studies, and is also important for functional annotation of new genomes. Identification of orthologous gene sets typically involves phylogenetic tree analysis, heuristic algorithms based on sequence conservation, synteny analysis, or some combination of these approaches. The most direct tree-based methods typically rely on the comparison of an individual gene tree with a species tree. Once the two trees are accurately constructed, orthologs are straightforwardly identified by the definition of orthology as those homologs that are related by speciation, rather than gene duplication, at their most recent point of origin. Although ideal for the purpose of orthology identification in principle, phylogenetic trees are computationally expensive to construct for large numbers of genes and genomes, and they often contain errors, especially at large evolutionary distances. Moreover, in many organisms, in particular prokaryotes and viruses, evolution does not appear to have followed a simple ‘tree-like’ mode, which makes conventional tree reconciliation inapplicable. Other, heuristic methods identify probable orthologs as the closest homologous pairs or groups of genes in a set of organisms. These approaches are faster and easier to automate than tree-based methods, with efficient implementations provided by graph-theoretical algorithms enabling comparisons of thousands of genomes. Comparisons of these two approaches show that, despite conceptual differences, they produce similar sets of orthologs, especially at short evolutionary distances. Synteny also can aid in identification of orthologs. Often, tree-based, sequence similarity- and synteny-based approaches can be combined into flexible hybrid methods.
homolog; ortholog; paralog; xenolog; orthologous groups; tree reconciliation; comparative genomics
In 2009, we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin and the 150th jubilee of his masterpiece, the Origin of Species. Darwin developed the first coherent and compelling narrative of biological evolution and thus founded evolutionary biology—and modern biology in general, remembering the famous dictum of Dobzhansky. It is, however, counter-productive, and ultimately, a disservice to Darwin’s legacy, to define modern evolutionary biology as neo-Darwinism. The current picture of evolution, informed, in particular, by results of comparative genomics and systems biology, is by far more complex than that presented in the Origin of Species, so that Darwinian principles, including natural selection, are incorporated into the evolving new synthesis as important but certainly not all-embracing tenets. This expansion of evolutionary biology does not denigrate Darwin in the least but rather emphasizes the fertility of his ideas.
Darwin’s anniversary; Darwinism; modern synthesis; genome evolution; systems biology; horizontal gene transfer; Tree of Life
The widespread exchange of genes among prokaryotes, known as horizontal gene transfer (HGT), is often considered to “uproot” the Tree of Life (TOL). Indeed, it is by now fully clear that genes in general possess different evolutionary histories. However, the possibility remains that the TOL concept can be reformulated and remain valid as a statistical central trend in the phylogenetic “Forest of Life” (FOL). This article describes a computational pipeline developed to chart the FOL by comparative analysis of thousands of phylogenetic trees. This analysis reveals a distinct, consistent phylogenetic signal that is particularly strong among the Nearly Universal Trees (NUTs), which correspond to genes represented in all or most of the analyzed organisms. Despite the substantial amount of apparent HGT seen even among the NUTs, these gene transfers appear to be distributed randomly and do not obscure the central tree-like trend.
The recently discovered CRISPR-Cas adaptive immune system is present in almost all archaea and many bacteria. It consists of cassettes of CRISPR repeats that incorporate spacers homologous to fragments of viral or plasmid genomes that are employed as guide RNAs in the immune response, along with numerous CRISPR-associated (cas) genes that encode proteins possessing diverse, only partially characterized activities required for the action of the system. Here, we investigate the evolution of the cas genes and show that they evolve under purifying selection that is typically much weaker than the median strength of purifying selection affecting genes in the respective genomes. The exceptions are the cas1 and cas2 genes that typically evolve at levels of purifying selection close to the genomic median. Thus, although these genes are implicated in the acquisition of spacers from alien genomes, they do not appear to be directly involved in an arms race between bacterial and archaeal hosts and infectious agents. These genes might possess functions distinct from and additional to their role in the CRISPR-Cas-mediated immune response. Taken together with evidence of the frequent horizontal transfer of cas genes reported previously and with the wide-spread microscale recombination within these genes detected in this work, these findings reveal the highly dynamic evolution of cas genes. This conclusion is in line with the involvement of CRISPR-Cas in antiviral immunity that is likely to entail a coevolutionary arms race with rapidly evolving viruses. However, we failed to detect evidence of strong positive selection in any of the cas genes.
Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is a major factor in the evolution of prokaryotes. An intriguing question is whether HGT is maintained during evolution of prokaryotes owing to its adaptive value or is a byproduct of selection driven by other factors such as consumption of extracellular DNA (eDNA) as a nutrient. One hypothesis posits that HGT can restore genes inactivated by mutations and thereby prevent stochastic, irreversible deterioration of genomes in finite populations known as Muller’s ratchet. To examine this hypothesis, we developed a population genetic model of prokaryotes undergoing HGT via homologous recombination. Analysis of this model indicates that HGT can prevent the operation of Muller’s ratchet even when the source of transferred genes is eDNA that comes from dead cells and on average carries more deleterious mutations than the DNA of recipient live cells. Moreover, if HGT is sufficiently frequent and eDNA diffusion sufficiently rapid, a subdivided population is shown to be more resistant to Muller’s ratchet than an undivided population of an equal overall size. Thus, to maintain genomic information in the face of Muller’s ratchet, it is more advantageous to partition individuals into multiple subpopulations and let them “cross-reference” each other’s genetic information through HGT than to collect all individuals in one population and thereby maximize the efficacy of natural selection. Taken together, the results suggest that HGT could be an important condition for the long-term maintenance of genomic information in prokaryotes through the prevention of Muller’s ratchet.
environmental DNA; evolution of transformation; competence; structured population; soil bacteria
When Charles Darwin formulated the central principles of evolutionary biology in the Origin of Species in 1859 and the architects of the Modern Synthesis integrated these principles with population genetics almost a century later, the principal if not the sole objects of evolutionary biology were multicellular eukaryotes, primarily animals and plants. Before the advent of efficient gene sequencing, all attempts to extend evolutionary studies to bacteria have been futile. Sequencing of the rRNA genes in thousands of microbes allowed the construction of the three- domain “ribosomal Tree of Life” that was widely thought to have resolved the evolutionary relationships between the cellular life forms. However, subsequent massive sequencing of numerous, complete microbial genomes revealed novel evolutionary phenomena, the most fundamental of these being: (1) pervasive horizontal gene transfer (HGT), in large part mediated by viruses and plasmids, that shapes the genomes of archaea and bacteria and call for a radical revision (if not abandonment) of the Tree of Life concept, (2) Lamarckian-type inheritance that appears to be critical for antivirus defense and other forms of adaptation in prokaryotes, and (3) evolution of evolvability, i.e., dedicated mechanisms for evolution such as vehicles for HGT and stress-induced mutagenesis systems. In the non-cellular part of the microbial world, phylogenomics and metagenomics of viruses and related selfish genetic elements revealed enormous genetic and molecular diversity and extremely high abundance of viruses that come across as the dominant biological entities on earth. Furthermore, the perennial arms race between viruses and their hosts is one of the defining factors of evolution. Thus, microbial phylogenomics adds new dimensions to the fundamental picture of evolution even as the principle of descent with modification discovered by Darwin and the laws of population genetics remain at the core of evolutionary biology.
Darwin; modern synthesis; comparative genomics; tree of life; horizontal gene transfer
Genome-wide comparison of phylogenetic trees is becoming an increasingly common approach in evolutionary genomics, and a variety of approaches for such comparison have been developed. In this article we present several methods for comparative analysis of large numbers of phylogenetic trees. To compare phylogenetic trees taking into account the bootstrap support for each internal branch, the Boot-Split Distance (BSD) method is introduced as an extension of the previously developed Split Distance (SD) method for tree comparison. The BSD method implements the straightforward idea that comparison of phylogenetic trees can be made more robust by treating tree splits differentially depending on the bootstrap support. Approaches are also introduced for detecting tree-like and net-like evolutionary trends in the phylogenetic Forest of Life (FOL), i.e., the entirety of the phylogenetic trees for conserved genes of prokaryotes. The principal method employed for this purpose includes mapping quartets of species onto trees to calculate the support of each quartet topology and so to quantify the tree and net contributions to the distances between species. We describe the applications methods used to analyze the FOL and the results obtained with these methods. These results support the concept of the Tree of Life (TOL) as a central evolutionary trend in the FOL as opposed to the traditional view of the TOL as a ‘species tree’.
Forest of life; tree of life; phylogenomic methods; tree comparison; map of quartets
The CRISPR-Cas-derived RNA-guided Cas9 endonuclease is the key element of an emerging promising technology for genome engineering in a broad range of cells and organisms. The DNA-targeting mechanism of the type II CRISPR-Cas system involves maturation of tracrRNA:crRNA duplex (dual-RNA), which directs Cas9 to cleave invading DNA in a sequence-specific manner, dependent on the presence of a Protospacer Adjacent Motif (PAM) on the target. We show that evolution of dual-RNA and Cas9 in bacteria produced remarkable sequence diversity. We selected eight representatives of phylogenetically defined type II CRISPR-Cas groups to analyze possible coevolution of Cas9 and dual-RNA. We demonstrate that these two components are interchangeable only between closely related type II systems when the PAM sequence is adjusted to the investigated Cas9 protein. Comparison of the taxonomy of bacterial species that harbor type II CRISPR-Cas systems with the Cas9 phylogeny corroborates horizontal transfer of the CRISPR-Cas loci. The reported collection of dual-RNA:Cas9 with associated PAMs expands the possibilities for multiplex genome editing and could provide means to improve the specificity of the RNA-programmable Cas9 tool.
The nucleo-cytoplasmic large DNA viruses (NCLDV) constitute an apparently monophyletic group that consists of 6 families of viruses infecting a broad variety of eukaryotes. A comprehensive genome comparison and maximum-likelihood reconstruction of NCLDV evolution reveal a set of approximately 50 conserved genes that can be tentatively mapped to the genome of the common ancestor of this class of eukaryotic viruses. We address the origins and evolution of NCLDV.
Phylogenetic analysis indicates that some of the major clades of NCLDV infect diverse animals and protists, suggestive of early radiation of the NCLDV, possibly concomitant with eukaryogenesis. The core NCLDV genes seem to have originated from different sources including homologous genes of bacteriophages, bacteria and eukaryotes. These observations are compatible with a scenario of the origin of the NCLDV at an early stage of the evolution of eukaryotes through extensive mixing of genes from widely different genomes.
The common ancestor of the NCLDV probably evolved from a bacteriophage as a result of recruitment of numerous eukaryotic and some bacterial genes, and concomitant loss of the majority of phage genes except for a small core of genes coding for proteins essential for virus genome replication and virion formation.
Bacteriophage; Eukaryogenesis; Nucleo-cytoplasmic large DNA viruses, evolution; Phylogenetic analysis
The recently discovered Pandoraviruses are by far the largest viruses known, with their 2 megabase genomes exceeding in size the genomes of numerous bacteria and archaea. Pandoraviruses show a distant relationship with other nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses (NCLDV) of eukaryotes, lack some of the NCLDV core genes and in particular do not appear to be specifically related to the other, better characterized family of giant viruses, the Mimiviridae. Here we report phylogenetic analysis of 6 core NCLDV genes that confidently places Pandoraviruses within the family Phycodnaviridae, with an apparent specific affinity with Coccolithoviruses. We conclude that, despite their many unusual characteristics, Pandoraviruses are highly derived phycodnaviruses. These findings imply that giant viruses have independently evolved from smaller NCLDV on at least two occasions.
This article was reviewed by Patrick Forterre and Lakshminarayan Iyer. For the full reviews, see the Reviewers’ reports section.
Most of the archaea and numerous bacteria possess an elaborate system of adaptive immunity to mobile genetic elements known as the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-associated system (CRISPR-Cas), which consists of arrays of short repeats interspersed with unique DNA spacers and adjacent operons encompassing CRISPR-associated (cas) genes with predicted and, in some cases, experimentally validated nuclease, helicase, and polymerase activities. The system functions by integrating fragments of alien DNA between the repeats and employing their transcripts to degrade the DNA of the respective invading elements via an RNA interference-like mechanism. The CRISPR-Cas system is a case of apparent Lamarckian inheritance.
Planctomycetes, Verrucomicrobia and Chlamydia are prokaryotic phyla that are sometimes grouped together as the PVC superphylum of eubacteria. Some PVC species possess interesting attributes, in particular, internal membranes that superficially resemble eukaryotic endomembranes. Some biologists now claim that PVC bacteria are nucleus-bearing prokaryotes and that they are evolutionary intermediates in the transition from prokaryote to eukaryote. PVC prokaryotes do not possess a nucleus and are not intermediates in the prokaryote-to-eukaryote transition. All of the PVC traits that are currently cited as evidence for aspiring eukaryoticity are either analogous (the result of convergent evolution), not homologous, to eukaryotic traits; or else they are the result of lateral gene transfers. Here we summarize the evidence that shows why most of the purported similarities between the PVC bacteria and eukaryotes are analogous and the rest are consequence of lateral gene acquisition.
The recent discovery of protein modification by SAMPs, ubiquitin-like (Ubl) proteins from the archaeon Haloferax volcanii, prompted a comprehensive comparative-genomic analysis of archaeal Ubl protein genes and the genes for enzymes thought to be functionally associated with Ubl proteins. This analysis showed that most archaea encode members of two major groups of Ubl proteins with the β-grasp fold, the ThiS and MoaD families, and indicated that the ThiS family genes are rarely linked to genes for thiamine or Mo/W cofactor metabolism enzymes but instead are most often associated with genes for enzymes of tRNA modification. Therefore it is hypothesized that the ancestral function of the archaeal Ubl proteins is sulfur insertion into modified nucleotides in tRNAs, an activity analogous to that of the URM1 protein in eukaryotes. Together with additional, previously described genomic associations, these findings indicate that systems for protein quality control operating at different levels, including tRNA modification that controls translation fidelity, protein ubiquitination that regulates protein degradation, and, possibly, mRNA degradation by the exosome, are functionally and evolutionarily linked.
Evolutionary reconstructions using maximum likelihood methods point to unexpectedly high densities of introns in protein-coding genes of ancestral eukaryotic forms including the last common ancestor of all extant eukaryotes. Combined with the evidence of the origin of spliceosomal introns from invading Group II self-splicing introns, these results suggest that early ancestral eukaryotic genomes consisted of up to 80% sequences derived from Group II introns, a much greater contribution of introns than that seen in any extant genome. An organism with such an unusual genome architecture could survive only under conditions of a severe population bottleneck.
effective population size; endosymbiosis; group II self-splicing introns; origin of eukaryotes; spliceosomal introns
Evolutionary binary characters are features of species or genes, indicating the absence (value zero) or presence (value one) of some property. Examples include eukaryotic gene architecture (the presence or absence of an intron in a particular locus), gene content, and morphological characters. In many studies, the acquisition of such binary characters is assumed to represent a rare evolutionary event, and consequently, their evolution is analyzed using various flavors of parsimony. However, when gain and loss of the character are not rare enough, a probabilistic analysis becomes essential. Here, we present a comprehensive probabilistic model to describe the evolution of binary characters on a bifurcating phylogenetic tree. A fast software tool, EREM, is provided, using maximum likelihood to estimate the parameters of the model and to reconstruct ancestral states (presence and absence in internal nodes) and events (gain and loss events along branches).
We applied Illumina Human Methylation450K array to perform a genomic-scale single-site resolution DNA methylation analysis in neuronal and nonneuronal (primarily glial) nuclei separated from the orbitofrontal cortex of postmortem human brain. The findings were validated using enhanced reduced representation bisulfite sequencing. We identified thousands of sites differentially methylated (DM) between neuronal and nonneuronal cells. The DM sites were depleted within CpG-island–containing promoters but enriched in predicted enhancers. Classification of the DM sites into those undermethylated in neurons (neuronal type) and those undermethylated in nonneuronal cells (glial type), combined with findings of others that methylation within control elements typically negatively correlates with gene expression, yielded large sets of predicted neuron-specific and non–neuron-specific genes. These sets of predicted genes were in excellent agreement with the available direct measurements of gene expression in human and mouse. We also found a distinct set of DNA methylation patterns that were unique for neuronal cells. In particular, neuronal-type differential methylation was overrepresented in CpG island shores, enriched within gene bodies but not in intergenic regions, and preferentially harbored binding motifs for a distinct set of transcription factors, including neuron-specific activity-dependent factors. Finally, non-CpG methylation was substantially more prevalent in neurons than in nonneuronal cells.
Non-linear, parabolic (sub-exponential) and hyperbolic (super-exponential) models of prebiological evolution of molecular replicators have been proposed and extensively studied. The parabolic models appear to be the most realistic approximations of real-life replicator systems due primarily to product inhibition. Unlike the more traditional exponential models, the distribution of individual frequencies in an evolving parabolic population is not described by the Maximum Entropy (MaxEnt) Principle in its traditional form, whereby the distribution with the maximum Shannon entropy is chosen among all the distributions that are possible under the given constraints. We sought to identify a more general form of the MaxEnt principle that would be applicable to parabolic growth.
We consider a model of a population that reproduces according to the parabolic growth law and show that the frequencies of individuals in the population minimize the Tsallis relative entropy (non-additive information gain) at each time moment. Next, we consider a model of a parabolically growing population that maintains a constant total size and provide an “implicit” solution for this system. We show that in this case, the frequencies of the individuals in the population also minimize the Tsallis information gain at each moment of the ‘internal time” of the population.
The results of this analysis show that the general MaxEnt principle is the underlying law for the evolution of a broad class of replicator systems including not only exponential but also parabolic and hyperbolic systems. The choice of the appropriate entropy (information) function depends on the growth dynamics of a particular class of systems. The Tsallis entropy is non-additive for independent subsystems, i.e. the information on the subsystems is insufficient to describe the system as a whole. In the context of prebiotic evolution, this “non-reductionist” nature of parabolic replicator systems might reflect the importance of group selection and competition between ensembles of cooperating replicators.
This article was reviewed by Viswanadham Sridhara (nominated by Claus Wilke), Puushottam Dixit (nominated by Sergei Maslov), and Nick Grishin. For the complete reviews, see the Reviewers’ Reports section.
Replicator equation; Parabolic growth; Tsallis entropy; Non-extensive statistical mechanics; MaxEnt principle
The shape of the distribution of evolutionary distances between orthologous genes in pairs of closely related genomes is universal throughout the entire range of cellular life forms. The near invariance of this distribution across billions of years of evolution can be accounted for by the Universal Pace Maker (UPM) model of genome evolution that yields a significantly better fit to the phylogenetic data than the Molecular Clock (MC) model. Unlike the MC, the UPM model does not assume constant gene-specific evolutionary rates but rather postulates that, in each evolving lineage, the evolutionary rates of all genes change (approximately) in unison although the pacemakers of different lineages are not necessarily synchronized. Here, we dissect the nearly constant evolutionary rate distribution by comparing the genome-wide relative rates of evolution of individual genes in pairs or triplets of closely related genomes from diverse bacterial and archaeal taxa. We show that, although the gene-specific relative rate is an important feature of genome evolution that explains more than half of the variance of the evolutionary distances, the ranges of relative rate variability are extremely broad even for universal genes. Because of this high variance, the gene-specific rate is a poor predictor of the conservation rank for any gene in any particular lineage.
evolutionary rate; universal genes; molecular clock; universal pacemaker of genome evolution
The major role of enzymatic toxins that target nucleic acids in biological conflicts at all levels has become increasingly apparent thanks in large part to the advances of comparative genomics. Typically, toxins evolve rapidly hampering the identification of these proteins by sequence analysis. Here we analyze an unexpectedly widespread superfamily of toxin domains most of which possess RNase activity.
The HEPN superfamily is comprised of all α-helical domains that were first identified as being associated with DNA polymerase β-type nucleotidyltransferases in prokaryotes and animal Sacsin proteins. Using sensitive sequence and structure comparison methods, we vastly extend the HEPN superfamily by identifying numerous novel families and by detecting diverged HEPN domains in several known protein families. The new HEPN families include the RNase LS and LsoA catalytic domains, KEN domains (e.g. RNaseL and Ire1) and the RNase domains of RloC and PrrC. The majority of HEPN domains contain conserved motifs that constitute a metal-independent endoRNase active site. Some HEPN domains lacking this motif probably function as non-catalytic RNA-binding domains, such as in the case of the mannitol repressor MtlR. Our analysis shows that HEPN domains function as toxins that are shared by numerous systems implicated in intra-genomic, inter-genomic and intra-organismal conflicts across the three domains of cellular life. In prokaryotes HEPN domains are essential components of numerous toxin-antitoxin (TA) and abortive infection (Abi) systems and in addition are tightly associated with many restriction-modification (R-M) and CRISPR-Cas systems, and occasionally with other defense systems such as Pgl and Ter. We present evidence of multiple modes of action of HEPN domains in these systems, which include direct attack on viral RNAs (e.g. LsoA and RNase LS) in conjunction with other RNase domains (e.g. a novel RNase H fold domain, NamA), suicidal or dormancy-inducing attack on self RNAs (RM systems and possibly CRISPR-Cas systems), and suicidal attack coupled with direct interaction with phage components (Abi systems). These findings are compatible with the hypothesis on coupling of pathogen-targeting (immunity) and self-directed (programmed cell death and dormancy induction) responses in the evolution of robust antiviral strategies. We propose that altruistic cell suicide mediated by HEPN domains and other functionally similar RNases was essential for the evolution of kin and group selection and cell cooperation. HEPN domains were repeatedly acquired by eukaryotes and incorporated into several core functions such as endonucleolytic processing of the 5.8S-25S/28S rRNA precursor (Las1), a novel ER membrane-associated RNA degradation system (C6orf70), sensing of unprocessed transcripts at the nuclear periphery (Swt1). Multiple lines of evidence suggest that, similar to prokaryotes, HEPN proteins were recruited to antiviral, antitransposon, apoptotic systems or RNA-level response to unfolded proteins (Sacsin and KEN domains) in several groups of eukaryotes.
Extensive sequence and structure comparisons reveal unexpectedly broad presence of the HEPN domain in an enormous variety of defense and stress response systems across the tree of life. In addition, HEPN domains have been recruited to perform essential functions, in particular in eukaryotic rRNA processing. These findings are expected to stimulate experiments that could shed light on diverse cellular processes across the three domains of life.
This article was reviewed by Martijn Huynen, Igor Zhulin and Nick Grishin