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1.  Evolution of replicative DNA polymerases in archaea and their contributions to the eukaryotic replication machinery 
The elaborate eukaryotic DNA replication machinery evolved from the archaeal ancestors that themselves show considerable complexity. Here we discuss the comparative genomic and phylogenetic analysis of the core replication enzymes, the DNA polymerases, in archaea and their relationships with the eukaryotic polymerases. In archaea, there are three groups of family B DNA polymerases, historically known as PolB1, PolB2 and PolB3. All three groups appear to descend from the last common ancestors of the extant archaea but their subsequent evolutionary trajectories seem to have been widely different. Although PolB3 is present in all archaea, with the exception of Thaumarchaeota, and appears to be directly involved in lagging strand replication, the evolution of this gene does not follow the archaeal phylogeny, conceivably due to multiple horizontal transfers and/or dramatic differences in evolutionary rates. In contrast, PolB1 is missing in Euryarchaeota but otherwise seems to have evolved vertically. The third archaeal group of family B polymerases, PolB2, includes primarily proteins in which the catalytic centers of the polymerase and exonuclease domains are disrupted and accordingly the enzymes appear to be inactivated. The members of the PolB2 group are scattered across archaea and might be involved in repair or regulation of replication along with inactivated members of the RadA family ATPases and an additional, uncharacterized protein that are encoded within the same predicted operon. In addition to the family B polymerases, all archaea, with the exception of the Crenarchaeota, encode enzymes of a distinct family D the origin of which is unclear. We examine multiple considerations that appear compatible with the possibility that family D polymerases are highly derived homologs of family B. The eukaryotic DNA polymerases show a highly complex relationship with their archaeal ancestors including contributions of proteins and domains from both the family B and the family D archaeal polymerases.
PMCID: PMC4104785  PMID: 25101062
DNA replication; archaea; mobile genetic elements; DNA polymerases; enzyme inactivation
2.  Quantifying the similarity of monotonic trajectories in rough and smooth fitness landscapes 
Molecular bioSystems  2013;9(7):1627-1631.
When selection is strong and mutations are rare, evolution can be thought of as an uphill trajectory in a rugged fitness landscape. In this context the fitness landscape is a directed acyclic graph in which nodes are genotypes and edges lead from lower to higher fitness genotypes that differ by a single mutation. Because the space of genotypes is vastly multi-dimensional, classification of fitness landscapes is challenging. Many proposed summary characteristics of fitness landscapes attempt to quantify biologically relevant and intuitive notions such as roughness or peak accessibility in alternative ways. Here we explore, in different types of landscapes, the behavior of the recently introduced mean path divergence which quantifies the degree of similarity among evolutionary trajectories with the same endpoints. We find that monotonic trajectories in empirical and model fitness landscapes are significantly more constrained, with low median path divergence, than those in purely additive landscapes. By contrast, transcription factor sequence specificity (aptamer binding affinity) landscapes are markedly smoother and allow substantial variability in monotonic paths that can be greater than that in fully additive landscapes. We propose that the smoothness of the specificity landscapes is a consequence of the simple dependence of the transcription factor binding affinity on the aptamer sequence in contrast to the complex sequence-fitness mapping in folding landscapes.
PMCID: PMC4325993  PMID: 23460358
3.  A virocentric perspective on the evolution of life 
Current opinion in virology  2013;3(5):546-557.
Viruses and/or virus-like selfish elements are associated with all cellular life forms and are the most abundant biological entities on Earth, with the number of virus particles in many environments exceeding the number of cells by one to two orders of magnitude. The genetic diversity of viruses is commensurately enormous and might substantially exceed the diversity of cellular organisms. Unlike cellular organisms with their uniform replication-expression scheme, viruses possess either RNA or DNA genomes and exploit all conceivable replication-expression strategies. Although viruses extensively exchange genes with their hosts, there exists a set of viral hallmark genes that are shared by extremely diverse groups of viruses to the exclusion of cellular life forms. Coevolution of viruses and host defense systems is a key aspect in the evolution of both viruses and cells, and viral genes are often recruited for cellular functions. Together with the fundamental inevitability of the emergence of genomic parasites in any evolving replicator system, these multiple lines of evidence reveal the central role of viruses in the entire evolution of life.
PMCID: PMC4326007  PMID: 23850169
4.  Computational methods for Gene Orthology inference 
Briefings in Bioinformatics  2011;12(5):379-391.
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.
PMCID: PMC3178053  PMID: 21690100
homolog; ortholog; paralog; xenolog; orthologous groups; tree reconciliation; comparative genomics
5.  CRISPR-Cas 
RNA Biology  2013;10(5):679-686.
The CRISPR-Cas (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, CRISPR-associated genes) is an adaptive immunity system in bacteria and archaea that functions via a distinct self-non-self recognition mechanism that is partially analogous to the mechanism of eukaryotic RNA interference (RNAi). The CRISPR-Cas system incorporates fragments of virus or plasmid DNA into the CRISPR repeat cassettes and employs the processed transcripts of these spacers as guide RNAs to cleave the cognate foreign DNA or RNA. The Cas proteins, however, are not homologous to the proteins involved in RNAi and comprise numerous, highly diverged families. The majority of the Cas proteins contain diverse variants of the RNA recognition motif (RRM), a widespread RNA-binding domain. Despite the fast evolution that is typical of the cas genes, the presence of diverse versions of the RRM in most Cas proteins provides for a simple scenario for the evolution of the three distinct types of CRISPR-cas systems. In addition to several proteins that are directly implicated in the immune response, the cas genes encode a variety of proteins that are homologous to prokaryotic toxins that typically possess nuclease activity. The predicted toxins associated with CRISPR-Cas systems include the essential Cas2 protein, proteins of COG1517 that, in addition to a ligand-binding domain and a helix-turn-helix domain, typically contain different nuclease domains and several other predicted nucleases. The tight association of the CRISPR-Cas immunity systems with predicted toxins that, upon activation, would induce dormancy or cell death suggests that adaptive immunity and dormancy/suicide response are functionally coupled. Such coupling could manifest in the persistence state being induced and potentially providing conditions for more effective action of the immune system or in cell death being triggered when immunity fails.
PMCID: PMC3737325  PMID: 23439366
CRISPR-Cas; adaptive immunity; innate immunity; programmed cell death; dormancy; RRM domain
6.  CARF and WYL domains: ligand-binding regulators of prokaryotic defense systems 
Frontiers in Genetics  2014;5:102.
CRISPR-Cas adaptive immunity systems of bacteria and archaea insert fragments of virus or plasmid DNA as spacer sequences into CRISPR repeat loci. Processed transcripts encompassing these spacers guide the cleavage of the cognate foreign DNA or RNA. Most CRISPR-Cas loci, in addition to recognized cas genes, also include genes that are not directly implicated in spacer acquisition, CRISPR transcript processing or interference. Here we comprehensively analyze sequences, structures and genomic neighborhoods of one of the most widespread groups of such genes that encode proteins containing a predicted nucleotide-binding domain with a Rossmann-like fold, which we denote CARF (CRISPR-associated Rossmann fold). Several CARF protein structures have been determined but functional characterization of these proteins is lacking. The CARF domain is most frequently combined with a C-terminal winged helix-turn-helix DNA-binding domain and “effector” domains most of which are predicted to possess DNase or RNase activity. Divergent CARF domains are also found in RtcR proteins, sigma-54 dependent regulators of the rtc RNA repair operon. CARF genes frequently co-occur with those coding for proteins containing the WYL domain with the Sm-like SH3 β-barrel fold, which is also predicted to bind ligands. CRISPR-Cas and possibly other defense systems are predicted to be transcriptionally regulated by multiple ligand-binding proteins containing WYL and CARF domains which sense modified nucleotides and nucleotide derivatives generated during virus infection. We hypothesize that CARF domains also transmit the signal from the bound ligand to the fused effector domains which attack either alien or self nucleic acids, resulting, respectively, in immunity complementing the CRISPR-Cas action or in dormancy/programmed cell death.
PMCID: PMC4012209  PMID: 24817877
CRISPR; Rossmann fold; beta barrel; DNA-binding proteins; phage defense
7.  Hax1 is not a Bcl-2-family-related protein and does not present Omi/HtrA2 to PARL : implications for mitochondrial stress and apoptosis 
Cell death and differentiation  2009;16(12):1622-1629.
Hax1 plays an important role in immunodeficiency syndromes and apoptosis. Recently, Chao et al., (Nature, 2008) reported that Hax1 is a Bcl-2-family-related protein required to suppress apoptosis in lymphocytes and neurons via a mechanism that involves association to the rhomboid protease PARL in the mitochondria intermembrane space (IMS). Mechanistically, Hax1/PARL interaction allows the recruitment of the serine protease Omi/HtrA2 and its presentation to PARL, which cleaves it to generate a form of Omi/HtrA2 that may proteolytically eliminate active Bax during mitochondrial outer membrane permeabilization (MOMP). The results of this study imply that the control of cell-type sensitivity to proapoptotic stimuli is governed by the PARL/Hax1 complex in the IMS and, more generally, that Bcl-2-family-related proteins can control MOMP from the inside of the mitochondrion. Further, it defines a novel, antiapoptotic Opa1-independent pathway for PARL. Here we present evidence that Hax1 is not a Bcl-2-family-related protein. Also, that in vivo the activity of Hax1 cannot be mechanistically coupled to PARL because the two proteins are confined in distinct cellular compartments and their interaction in vitro is an artifact. Our results indicate a different function and mechanism of Hax1 in apoptosis and re-opens the question of whether mammalian PARL, in addition to apoptosis, regulates mitochondrial stress response through Omi/HtrA2 processing.
PMCID: PMC4300852  PMID: 19680265
Parl; Hax1; Omi; HtrA2; rhomboids; serine protease; mitochondrial stress; mitochondria dynamics; apoptosis; neurodegenerative disease; Parkinson's disease; cancer
8.  Coupling Between Protein Level Selection and Codon Usage Optimization in the Evolution of Bacteria and Archaea 
mBio  2014;5(2):e00956-14.
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.
PMCID: PMC3977353  PMID: 24667707
9.  Elaborate security TRAINing to fight against expression of genomic junk 
Cell Cycle  2013;12(4):553-554.
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.
PMCID: PMC3594256  PMID: 23370394
p53; transposable elements; SINE repeats; DNA methylation; interferon response
10.  Evolutionary Dynamics of the Prokaryotic Adaptive Immunity System CRISPR-Cas in an Explicit Ecological Context 
Journal of Bacteriology  2013;195(17):3834-3844.
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.
PMCID: PMC3754601  PMID: 23794616
11.  Orthologous Gene Clusters and Taxon Signature Genes for Viruses of Prokaryotes 
Journal of Bacteriology  2013;195(5):941-950.
Viruses are the most abundant biological entities on earth and encompass a vast amount of genetic diversity. The recent rapid increase in the number of sequenced viral genomes has created unprecedented opportunities for gaining new insight into the structure and evolution of the virosphere. Here, we present an update of the phage orthologous groups (POGs), a collection of 4,542 clusters of orthologous genes from bacteriophages that now also includes viruses infecting archaea and encompasses more than 1,000 distinct virus genomes. Analysis of this expanded data set shows that the number of POGs keeps growing without saturation and that a substantial majority of the POGs remain specific to viruses, lacking homologues in prokaryotic cells, outside known proviruses. Thus, the great majority of virus genes apparently remains to be discovered. A complementary observation is that numerous viral genomes remain poorly, if at all, covered by POGs. The genome coverage by POGs is expected to increase as more genomes are sequenced. Taxon-specific, single-copy signature genes that are not observed in prokaryotic genomes outside detected proviruses were identified for two-thirds of the 57 taxa (those with genomes available from at least 3 distinct viruses), with half of these present in all members of the respective taxon. These signatures can be used to specifically identify the presence and quantify the abundance of viruses from particular taxa in metagenomic samples and thus gain new insights into the ecology and evolution of viruses in relation to their hosts.
PMCID: PMC3571318  PMID: 23222723
12.  Viral Diversity Threshold for Adaptive Immunity in Prokaryotes 
mBio  2012;3(6):e00456-12.
Bacteria and archaea face continual onslaughts of rapidly diversifying viruses and plasmids. Many prokaryotes maintain adaptive immune systems known as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) and CRISPR-associated genes (Cas). CRISPR-Cas systems are genomic sensors that serially acquire viral and plasmid DNA fragments (spacers) that are utilized to target and cleave matching viral and plasmid DNA in subsequent genomic invasions, offering critical immunological memory. Only 50% of sequenced bacteria possess CRISPR-Cas immunity, in contrast to over 90% of sequenced archaea. To probe why half of bacteria lack CRISPR-Cas immunity, we combined comparative genomics and mathematical modeling. Analysis of hundreds of diverse prokaryotic genomes shows that CRISPR-Cas systems are substantially more prevalent in thermophiles than in mesophiles. With sequenced bacteria disproportionately mesophilic and sequenced archaea mostly thermophilic, the presence of CRISPR-Cas appears to depend more on environmental temperature than on bacterial-archaeal taxonomy. Mutation rates are typically severalfold higher in mesophilic prokaryotes than in thermophilic prokaryotes. To quantitatively test whether accelerated viral mutation leads microbes to lose CRISPR-Cas systems, we developed a stochastic model of virus-CRISPR coevolution. The model competes CRISPR-Cas-positive (CRISPR-Cas+) prokaryotes against CRISPR-Cas-negative (CRISPR-Cas−) prokaryotes, continually weighing the antiviral benefits conferred by CRISPR-Cas immunity against its fitness costs. Tracking this cost-benefit analysis across parameter space reveals viral mutation rate thresholds beyond which CRISPR-Cas cannot provide sufficient immunity and is purged from host populations. These results offer a simple, testable viral diversity hypothesis to explain why mesophilic bacteria disproportionately lack CRISPR-Cas immunity. More generally, fundamental limits on the adaptability of biological sensors (Lamarckian evolution) are predicted.
A remarkable recent discovery in microbiology is that bacteria and archaea possess systems conferring immunological memory and adaptive immunity. Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) and CRISPR-associated genes (CRISPR-Cas) are genomic sensors that allow prokaryotes to acquire DNA fragments from invading viruses and plasmids. Providing immunological memory, these stored fragments destroy matching DNA in future viral and plasmid invasions. CRISPR-Cas systems also provide adaptive immunity, keeping up with mutating viruses and plasmids by continually acquiring new DNA fragments. Surprisingly, less than 50% of mesophilic bacteria, in contrast to almost 90% of thermophilic bacteria and Archaea, maintain CRISPR-Cas immunity. Using mathematical modeling, we probe this dichotomy, showing how increased viral mutation rates can explain the reduced prevalence of CRISPR-Cas systems in mesophiles. Rapidly mutating viruses outrun CRISPR-Cas immune systems, likely decreasing their prevalence in bacterial populations. Thus, viral adaptability may select against, rather than for, immune adaptability in prokaryotes.
PMCID: PMC3517865  PMID: 23221803
13.  Replaying the Tape of Life: Quantification of the Predictability of Evolution 
Frontiers in Genetics  2012;3:246.
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.
PMCID: PMC3509945  PMID: 23226153
evolutionary trajectory; predictability of evolution; fitness landscape; divergence of trajectories
14.  Dark matter in archaeal genomes: a rich source of novel mobile elements, defense systems and secretory complexes 
Extremophiles  2014;18(5):877-893.
Microbial genomes encompass a sizable fraction of poorly characterized, narrowly spread fast-evolving genes. Using sensitive methods for sequences comparison and protein structure prediction, we performed a detailed comparative analysis of clusters of such genes, which we denote “dark matter islands”, in archaeal genomes. The dark matter islands comprise up to 20 % of archaeal genomes and show remarkable heterogeneity and diversity. Nevertheless, three classes of entities are common in these genomic loci: (a) integrated viral genomes and other mobile elements; (b) defense systems, and (c) secretory and other membrane-associated systems. The dark matter islands in the genome of thermophiles and mesophiles show similar general trends of gene content, but thermophiles are substantially enriched in predicted membrane proteins whereas mesophiles have a greater proportion of recognizable mobile elements. Based on this analysis, we predict the existence of several novel groups of viruses and mobile elements, previously unnoticed variants of CRISPR-Cas immune systems, and new secretory systems that might be involved in stress response, intermicrobial conflicts and biogenesis of novel, uncharacterized membrane structures.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00792-014-0672-7) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4158269  PMID: 25113822
Archaeal genomes; ORFans; Genomic islands; Integration; Viruses; Defense
15.  Towards a postmodern synthesis of evolutionary biology 
Cell cycle (Georgetown, Tex.)  2009;8(6):799-800.
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.
PMCID: PMC3410441  PMID: 19242109
Darwin’s anniversary; Darwinism; modern synthesis; genome evolution; systems biology; horizontal gene transfer; Tree of Life
16.  Comparison of Phylogenetic Trees and Search for a Central Trend in the “Forest of Life” 
Journal of Computational Biology  2011;18(7):917-924.
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.
PMCID: PMC3123530  PMID: 21457008
evolution; genomics
17.  “Megavirales”, a proposed new order for eukaryotic nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses 
Archives of virology  2013;158(12):2517-2521.
The nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses (NCLDVs) comprise a monophyletic group of viruses that infect animals and diverse unicellular eukaryotes. The NCLDV group includes the families Poxviridae, Asfarviridae, Iridoviridae, Ascoviridae, Phycodnaviridae, Mimiviridae and the proposed family “Marseilleviridae”. The family Mimiviridae includes the largest known viruses, with genomes in excess of one megabase, whereas the genome size in the other NCLDV families varies from 100 to 400 kilobase pairs. Most of the NCLDVs replicate in the cytoplasm of infected cells, within so-called virus factories. The NCLDVs share a common ancient origin, as demonstrated by evolutionary reconstructions that trace approximately 50 genes encoding key proteins involved in viral replication and virion formation to the last common ancestor of all these viruses. Taken together, these characteristics lead us to propose assigning an official taxonomic rank to the NCLDVs as the order “Megavirales”, in reference to the large size of the virions and genomes of these viruses.
PMCID: PMC4066373  PMID: 23812617
18.  Nature and Intensity of Selection Pressure on CRISPR-Associated Genes 
Journal of Bacteriology  2012;194(5):1216-1225.
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.
PMCID: PMC3294813  PMID: 22178975
19.  Evolution of eukaryotic single-stranded DNA viruses of the Bidnaviridae family from genes of four other groups of widely different viruses 
Scientific Reports  2014;4:5347.
Single-stranded (ss)DNA viruses are extremely widespread, infect diverse hosts from all three domains of life and include important pathogens. Most ssDNA viruses possess small genomes that replicate by the rolling-circle-like mechanism initiated by a distinct virus-encoded endonuclease. However, viruses of the family Bidnaviridae, instead of the endonuclease, encode a protein-primed type B DNA polymerase (PolB) and hence break this pattern. We investigated the provenance of all bidnavirus genes and uncover an unexpected turbulent evolutionary history of these unique viruses. Our analysis strongly suggests that bidnaviruses evolved from a parvovirus ancestor from which they inherit a jelly-roll capsid protein and a superfamily 3 helicase. The radiation of bidnaviruses from parvoviruses was probably triggered by integration of the ancestral parvovirus genome into a large virus-derived DNA transposon of the Polinton (polintovirus) family resulting in the acquisition of the polintovirus PolB gene along with terminal inverted repeats. Bidnavirus genes for a receptor-binding protein and a potential novel antiviral defense modulator are derived from dsRNA viruses (Reoviridae) and dsDNA viruses (Baculoviridae), respectively. The unusual evolutionary history of bidnaviruses emphasizes the key role of horizontal gene transfer, sometimes between viruses with completely different genomes but occupying the same niche, in the emergence of new viral types.
PMCID: PMC4061559  PMID: 24939392
20.  Evolution of microbes and viruses: a paradigm shift in evolutionary biology? 
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.
PMCID: PMC3440604  PMID: 22993722
Darwin; modern synthesis; comparative genomics; tree of life; horizontal gene transfer
21.  Universal Pacemaker of Genome Evolution in Animals and Fungi and Variation of Evolutionary Rates in Diverse Organisms 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2014;6(6):1268-1278.
Gene evolution is traditionally considered within the framework of the molecular clock (MC) model whereby each gene is characterized by an approximately constant rate of evolution. Recent comparative analysis of numerous phylogenies of prokaryotic genes has shown that a different model of evolution, denoted the Universal PaceMaker (UPM), which postulates conservation of relative, rather than absolute evolutionary rates, yields a better fit to the phylogenetic data. Here, we show that the UPM model is a better fit than the MC for genome wide sets of phylogenetic trees from six species of Drosophila and nine species of yeast, with extremely high statistical significance. Unlike the prokaryotic phylogenies that include distant organisms and multiple horizontal gene transfers, these are simple data sets that cover groups of closely related organisms and consist of gene trees with the same topology as the species tree. The results indicate that both lineage-specific and gene-specific rates are important in genome evolution but the lineage-specific contribution is greater. Similar to the MC, the gene evolution rates under the UPM are strongly overdispersed, approximately 2-fold compared with the expectation from sampling error alone. However, we show that neither Drosophila nor yeast genes form distinct clusters in the tree space. Thus, the gene-specific deviations from the UPM, although substantial, are uncorrelated and most likely depend on selective factors that are largely unique to individual genes. Thus, the UPM appears to be a key feature of genome evolution across the history of cellular life.
PMCID: PMC4079209  PMID: 24812293
molecular clock; genome evolution; phylogenetic trees; relative evolution rates
22.  Evolution at protein ends: major contribution of alternative transcription initiation and termination to the transcriptome and proteome diversity in mammals 
Nucleic Acids Research  2014;42(11):7132-7144.
Alternative splicing (AS), alternative transcription initiation (ATI) and alternative transcription termination (ATT) create the extraordinary complexity of transcriptomes and make key contributions to the structural and functional diversity of mammalian proteomes. Analysis of mammalian genomic and transcriptomic data shows that contrary to the traditional view, the joint contribution of ATI and ATT to the transcriptome and proteome diversity is quantitatively greater than the contribution of AS. Although the mean numbers of protein-coding constitutive and alternative nucleotides in gene loci are nearly identical, their distribution along the transcripts is highly non-uniform. On average, coding exons in the variable 5′ and 3′ transcript ends that are created by ATI and ATT contain approximately four times more alternative nucleotides than core protein-coding regions that diversify exclusively via AS. Short upstream exons that encompass alternative 5′-untranslated regions and N-termini of proteins evolve under strong nucleotide-level selection whereas in 3′-terminal exons that encode protein C-termini, protein-level selection is significantly stronger. The groups of genes that are subject to ATI and ATT show major differences in biological roles, expression and selection patterns.
PMCID: PMC4066770  PMID: 24792168
23.  Origin and Evolution of Eukaryotic Large Nucleo-Cytoplasmic DNA Viruses 
Intervirology  2010;53(5):284-292.
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.
PMCID: PMC2895762  PMID: 20551680
Bacteriophage; Eukaryogenesis; Nucleo-cytoplasmic large DNA viruses, evolution; Phylogenetic analysis
24.  Open Questions on the Origin of Life at Anoxic Geothermal Fields 
We have recently reconstructed the ‘hatcheries’ of the first cells by combining geochemical analysis with phylogenomic scrutiny of the inorganic ion requirements of universal components of modern cells (Mulkidjanian et al.: Origin of first cells at terrestrial, anoxic geothermal fields. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2012, 109:E821–830). These ubiquitous, and by inference primordial, proteins and functional systems show affinity to and functional requirement for K+, Zn2+, Mn2+, and phosphate. Thus, protocells must have evolved in habitats with a high K+/Na+ ratio and relatively high concentrations of Zn, Mn and phosphorous compounds. Geochemical reconstruction shows that the ionic composition conducive to the origin of cells could not have existed in marine settings but is compatible with emissions of vapor-dominated zones of inland geothermal systems. Under anoxic, CO2-dominated atmosphere, the ionic composition of pools of cool, condensed vapor at anoxic geothermal fields would resemble the internal milieu of modern cells. Such pools would be lined with porous silicate minerals mixed with metal sulfides and enriched in K+ ions and phosphorous compounds.
Here we address some questions that have appeared in print after the publication of our anoxic geothermal field scenario. We argue that anoxic geothermal fields, which were identified as likely cradles of life by using a top-down approach and phylogenomics analysis as a tool, could provide geochemical conditions similar to those which were suggested as most conducive for the emergence of life by the chemists who pursuit the complementary bottom-up strategy.
PMCID: PMC3997052  PMID: 23132762
25.  Classification and evolution of type II CRISPR-Cas systems 
Nucleic Acids Research  2014;42(10):6091-6105.
The CRISPR-Cas systems of archaeal and bacterial adaptive immunity are classified into three types that differ by the repertoires of CRISPR-associated (cas) genes, the organization of cas operons and the structure of repeats in the CRISPR arrays. The simplest among the CRISPR-Cas systems is type II in which the endonuclease activities required for the interference with foreign deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) are concentrated in a single multidomain protein, Cas9, and are guided by a co-processed dual-tracrRNA:crRNA molecule. This compact enzymatic machinery and readily programmable site-specific DNA targeting make type II systems top candidates for a new generation of powerful tools for genomic engineering. Here we report an updated census of CRISPR-Cas systems in bacterial and archaeal genomes. Type II systems are the rarest, missing in archaea, and represented in ∼5% of bacterial genomes, with an over-representation among pathogens and commensals. Phylogenomic analysis suggests that at least three cas genes, cas1, cas2 and cas4, and the CRISPR repeats of the type II-B system were acquired via recombination with a type I CRISPR-Cas locus. Distant homologs of Cas9 were identified among proteins encoded by diverse transposons, suggesting that type II CRISPR-Cas evolved via recombination of mobile nuclease genes with type I loci.
PMCID: PMC4041416  PMID: 24728998

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