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1.  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
2.  CRISPR-Cas: an adaptive immunity system in prokaryotes 
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.
PMCID: PMC2884157  PMID: 20556198
3.  Intron-Dominated Genomes of Early Ancestors of Eukaryotes 
Journal of Heredity  2009;100(5):618-623.
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.
PMCID: PMC2877545  PMID: 19617525
effective population size; endosymbiosis; group II self-splicing introns; origin of eukaryotes; spliceosomal introns
4.  A Maximum Likelihood Method for Reconstruction of the Evolution of Eukaryotic Gene Structure 
Spliceosomal introns are one of the principal distinctive features of eukaryotes. Nevertheless, different large-scale studies disagree about even the most basic features of their evolution. In order to come up with a more reliable reconstruction of intron evolution, we developed a model that is far more comprehensive than previous ones. This model is rich in parameters, and estimating them accurately is infeasible by straightforward likelihood maximization. Thus, we have developed an expectation-maximization algorithm that allows for efficient maximization. Here, we outline the model and describe the expectation-maximization algorithm in detail. Since the method works with intron presence–absence maps, it is expected to be instrumental for the analysis of the evolution of other binary characters as well.
PMCID: PMC3410445  PMID: 19381540
Maximum likelihood; expectation-maximization; intron evolution; ancestral reconstruction; eukaryotic gene structure
5.  On the Origin of Cells and Viruses: Primordial Virus World Scenario 
It is proposed that the pre-cellular stage of biological evolution unraveled within networks of inorganic compartments that harbored a diverse mix of virus-like genetic elements. This stage of evolution might comprise the Last Universal Cellular Ancestor (LUCA) that more appropriately could be denoted Last Universal Cellular Ancestral State (LUCAS). This scenario for the origin of cellular life recapitulates the early ideas of J. B. S. Haldane sketched in his classic 1928 essay. However, unlike in Haldane’s day, there is now considerable support for this scenario from three major lines of comparative-genomic evidence: i) lack of homology between the core components of the DNA replication systems of the two primary lines of descent of cellular life forms, archaea and bacteria, ii) distinct membrane chemistries and lack of homology between the enzymes of lipid biosynthesis in archaea and bacteria, iii) spread of several viral hallmark genes, which encode proteins with key functions in viral replication and morphogenesis, among numerous and extremely diverse groups of viruses, in contrast to their absence in cellular life forms, iv) the extant archaeal and bacterial chromosomes appear to be shaped by accretion of diverse, smaller replicons, suggesting a continuity between the hypothetical, primordial virus stage of life’s evolution and the dynamic prokaryotic world that existed ever since. Under the viral model of pre-cellular evolution, the key components of cells including the replication apparatus, membranes, and molecular complexes involved in membrane transport and translocation originated as components of virus-like entities. The two surviving types of cellular life forms, archaea and bacteria, might have emerged from the LUCAS independently, along with, probably, numerous forms now extinct.
PMCID: PMC3380365  PMID: 19845627
comparative genomics; evolution of cells; evolution of viruses; origin of membranes; viral hallmark genes
6.  New dimensions of the virus world discovered through metagenomics 
Trends in Microbiology  2009;18(1):11-19.
Metagenomic analysis of viruses suggests novel patterns of evolution, changes the existing ideas of the composition of the virus world and reveals novel groups of viruses and virus-like agents. The gene composition of the marine DNA virome is dramatically different from that of known bacteriophages. The virome is dominated by rare genes, many of which might be contained within virus-like entities such as gene transfer agents. Analysis of marine metagenomes thought to consist mostly of bacterial genes revealed a variety of sequences homologous to conserved genes of eukaryotic nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses, resulting in the discovery of diverse members of previously undersampled groups and suggesting the existence of new classes of virus-like agents. Unexpectedly, metagenomics of marine RNA viruses showed that representatives of only one superfamily of eukaryotic viruses, the picorna-like viruses, dominate the RNA virome.
PMCID: PMC3293453  PMID: 19942437
7.  Origin and evolution of the genetic code: the universal enigma 
Iubmb Life  2009;61(2):99-111.
The genetic code is nearly universal, and the arrangement of the codons in the standard codon table is highly non-random. The three main concepts on the origin and evolution of the code are the stereochemical theory, according to which codon assignments are dictated by physico-chemical affinity between amino acids and the cognate codons (anticodons); the coevolution theory, which posits that the code structure coevolved with amino acid biosynthesis pathways; and the error minimization theory under which selection to minimize the adverse effect of point mutations and translation errors was the principal factor of the code’s evolution. These theories are not mutually exclusive and are also compatible with the frozen accident hypothesis, i.e., the notion that the standard code might have no special properties but was fixed simply because all extant life forms share a common ancestor, with subsequent changes to the code, mostly, precluded by the deleterious effect of codon reassignment. Mathematical analysis of the structure and possible evolutionary trajectories of the code shows that it is highly robust to translational misreading but there are numerous more robust codes, so the standard code potentially could evolve from a random code via a short sequence of codon series reassignments. Thus, much of the evolution that led to the standard code could be a combination of frozen accident with selection for error minimization although contributions from coevolution of the code with metabolic pathways and weak affinities between amino acids and nucleotide triplets cannot be ruled out. However, such scenarios for the code evolution are based on formal schemes whose relevance to the actual primordial evolution is uncertain. A real understanding of the code origin and evolution is likely to be attainable only in conjunction with a credible scenario for the evolution of the coding principle itself and the translation system.
PMCID: PMC3293468  PMID: 19117371
8.  The Origin at 150: is a new evolutionary synthesis in sight? 
Trends in genetics : TIG  2009;25(11):473-475.
The 200th anniversary of Darwin and the 150th jubilee of the Origin of Species prompt a new look at evolutionary biology. The 1959 Origin centennial was marked by the consolidation of the Modern Synthesis. The edifice of the Modern Synthesis has crumbled, apparently, beyond repair. The hallmark of the Darwinian discourse of 2009 is the plurality of evolutionary processes and patterns. Nevertheless, glimpses of a new synthesis might be discernible in emerging universals of evolution.
PMCID: PMC2784144  PMID: 19836100
9.  Evolution of DNA ligases of Nucleo-Cytoplasmic Large DNA viruses of eukaryotes: a case of hidden complexity 
Biology Direct  2009;4:51.
Eukaryotic Nucleo-Cytoplasmic Large DNA Viruses (NCLDV) encode most if not all of the enzymes involved in their DNA replication. It has been inferred that genes for these enzymes were already present in the last common ancestor of the NCLDV. However, the details of the evolution of these genes that bear on the complexity of the putative ancestral NCLDV and on the evolutionary relationships between viruses and their hosts are not well understood.
Phylogenetic analysis of the ATP-dependent and NAD-dependent DNA ligases encoded by the NCLDV reveals an unexpectedly complex evolutionary history. The NAD-dependent ligases are encoded only by a minority of NCLDV (including mimiviruses, some iridoviruses and entomopoxviruses) but phylogenetic analysis clearly indicated that all viral NAD-dependent ligases are monophyletic. Combined with the topology of the NCLDV tree derived by consensus of trees for universally conserved genes suggests that this enzyme was represented in the ancestral NCLDV. Phylogenetic analysis of ATP-dependent ligases that are encoded by chordopoxviruses, most of the phycodnaviruses and Marseillevirus failed to demonstrate monophyly and instead revealed an unexpectedly complex evolutionary trajectory. The ligases of the majority of phycodnaviruses and Marseillevirus seem to have evolved from bacteriophage or bacterial homologs; the ligase of one phycodnavirus, Emiliana huxlei virus, belongs to the eukaryotic DNA ligase I branch; and ligases of chordopoxviruses unequivocally cluster with eukaryotic DNA ligase III.
Examination of phyletic patterns and phylogenetic analysis of DNA ligases of the NCLDV suggest that the common ancestor of the extant NCLDV encoded an NAD-dependent ligase that most likely was acquired from a bacteriophage at the early stages of evolution of eukaryotes. By contrast, ATP-dependent ligases from different prokaryotic and eukaryotic sources displaced the ancestral NAD-dependent ligase at different stages of subsequent evolution. These findings emphasize complex routes of viral evolution that become apparent through detailed phylogenomic analysis but not necessarily in reconstructions based on phyletic patterns of genes.
This article was reviewed by: Patrick Forterre, George V. Shpakovski, and Igor B. Zhulin.
PMCID: PMC2806865  PMID: 20021668
10.  Eukaryotic large nucleo-cytoplasmic DNA viruses: Clusters of orthologous genes and reconstruction of viral genome evolution 
Virology Journal  2009;6:223.
The Nucleo-Cytoplasmic Large DNA Viruses (NCLDV) comprise an apparently monophyletic class of viruses that infect a broad variety of eukaryotic hosts. Recent progress in isolation of new viruses and genome sequencing resulted in a substantial expansion of the NCLDV diversity, resulting in additional opportunities for comparative genomic analysis, and a demand for a comprehensive classification of viral genes.
A comprehensive comparison of the protein sequences encoded in the genomes of 45 NCLDV belonging to 6 families was performed in order to delineate cluster of orthologous viral genes. Using previously developed computational methods for orthology identification, 1445 Nucleo-Cytoplasmic Virus Orthologous Groups (NCVOGs) were identified of which 177 are represented in more than one NCLDV family. The NCVOGs were manually curated and annotated and can be used as a computational platform for functional annotation and evolutionary analysis of new NCLDV genomes. A maximum-likelihood reconstruction of the NCLDV evolution yielded a set of 47 conserved genes that were probably present in the genome of the common ancestor of this class of eukaryotic viruses. This reconstructed ancestral gene set is robust to the parameters of the reconstruction procedure and so is likely to accurately reflect the gene core of the ancestral NCLDV, indicating that this virus encoded a complex machinery of replication, expression and morphogenesis that made it relatively independent from host cell functions.
The NCVOGs are a flexible and expandable platform for genome analysis and functional annotation of newly characterized NCLDV. Evolutionary reconstructions employing NCVOGs point to complex ancestral viruses.
PMCID: PMC2806869  PMID: 20017929
11.  CRISPR-Cas: an adaptive immunity system in prokaryotes 
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.
PMCID: PMC2884157  PMID: 20556198
12.  Exceptional error minimization in putative primordial genetic codes 
Biology Direct  2009;4:44.
The standard genetic code is redundant and has a highly non-random structure. Codons for the same amino acids typically differ only by the nucleotide in the third position, whereas similar amino acids are encoded, mostly, by codon series that differ by a single base substitution in the third or the first position. As a result, the code is highly albeit not optimally robust to errors of translation, a property that has been interpreted either as a product of selection directed at the minimization of errors or as a non-adaptive by-product of evolution of the code driven by other forces.
We investigated the error-minimization properties of putative primordial codes that consisted of 16 supercodons, with the third base being completely redundant, using a previously derived cost function and the error minimization percentage as the measure of a code's robustness to mistranslation. It is shown that, when the 16-supercodon table is populated with 10 putative primordial amino acids, inferred from the results of abiotic synthesis experiments and other evidence independent of the code's evolution, and with minimal assumptions used to assign the remaining supercodons, the resulting 2-letter codes are nearly optimal in terms of the error minimization level.
The results of the computational experiments with putative primordial genetic codes that contained only two meaningful letters in all codons and encoded 10 to 16 amino acids indicate that such codes are likely to have been nearly optimal with respect to the minimization of translation errors. This near-optimality could be the outcome of extensive early selection during the co-evolution of the code with the primordial, error-prone translation system, or a result of a unique, accidental event. Under this hypothesis, the subsequent expansion of the code resulted in a decrease of the error minimization level that became sustainable owing to the evolution of a high-fidelity translation system.
This article was reviewed by Paul Higgs (nominated by Arcady Mushegian), Rob Knight, and Sandor Pongor. For the complete reports, go to the Reviewers' Reports section.
PMCID: PMC2785773  PMID: 19925661
13.  Is evolution Darwinian or/and Lamarckian? 
Biology Direct  2009;4:42.
The year 2009 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jean-Bapteste Lamarck's Philosophie Zoologique and the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Lamarck believed that evolution is driven primarily by non-randomly acquired, beneficial phenotypic changes, in particular, those directly affected by the use of organs, which Lamarck believed to be inheritable. In contrast, Darwin assigned a greater importance to random, undirected change that provided material for natural selection.
The concept
The classic Lamarckian scheme appears untenable owing to the non-existence of mechanisms for direct reverse engineering of adaptive phenotypic characters acquired by an individual during its life span into the genome. However, various evolutionary phenomena that came to fore in the last few years, seem to fit a more broadly interpreted (quasi)Lamarckian paradigm. The prokaryotic CRISPR-Cas system of defense against mobile elements seems to function via a bona fide Lamarckian mechanism, namely, by integrating small segments of viral or plasmid DNA into specific loci in the host prokaryote genome and then utilizing the respective transcripts to destroy the cognate mobile element DNA (or RNA). A similar principle seems to be employed in the piRNA branch of RNA interference which is involved in defense against transposable elements in the animal germ line. Horizontal gene transfer (HGT), a dominant evolutionary process, at least, in prokaryotes, appears to be a form of (quasi)Lamarckian inheritance. The rate of HGT and the nature of acquired genes depend on the environment of the recipient organism and, in some cases, the transferred genes confer a selective advantage for growth in that environment, meeting the Lamarckian criteria. Various forms of stress-induced mutagenesis are tightly regulated and comprise a universal adaptive response to environmental stress in cellular life forms. Stress-induced mutagenesis can be construed as a quasi-Lamarckian phenomenon because the induced genomic changes, although random, are triggered by environmental factors and are beneficial to the organism.
Both Darwinian and Lamarckian modalities of evolution appear to be important, and reflect different aspects of the interaction between populations and the environment.
this article was reviewed by Juergen Brosius, Valerian Dolja, and Martijn Huynen. For complete reports, see the Reviewers' reports section.
PMCID: PMC2781790  PMID: 19906303
14.  Identification of an ortholog of the eukaryotic RNA polymerase III subunit RPC34 in Crenarchaeota and Thaumarchaeota suggests specialization of RNA polymerases for coding and non-coding RNAs in Archaea 
Biology Direct  2009;4:39.
One of the hallmarks of eukaryotic information processing is the co-existence of 3 distinct, multi-subunit RNA polymerase complexes that are dedicated to the transcription of specific classes of coding or non-coding RNAs. Archaea encode only one RNA polymerase that resembles the eukaryotic RNA polymerase II with respect to the subunit composition. Here we identify archaeal orthologs of the eukaryotic RNA polymerase III subunit RPC34. Genome context analysis supports a function of this archaeal protein in the transcription of non-coding RNAs. These findings suggest that functional separation of RNA polymerases for protein-coding genes and non-coding RNAs might predate the origin of the Eukaryotes.
Reviewers: This article was reviewed by Andrei Osterman and Patrick Forterre (nominated by Purificación López-García)
PMCID: PMC2770514  PMID: 19828044
15.  The fundamental units, processes and patterns of evolution, and the Tree of Life conundrum 
Biology Direct  2009;4:33.
The elucidation of the dominant role of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) in the evolution of prokaryotes led to a severe crisis of the Tree of Life (TOL) concept and intense debates on this subject.
Prompted by the crisis of the TOL, we attempt to define the primary units and the fundamental patterns and processes of evolution. We posit that replication of the genetic material is the singular fundamental biological process and that replication with an error rate below a certain threshold both enables and necessitates evolution by drift and selection. Starting from this proposition, we outline a general concept of evolution that consists of three major precepts.
1. The primary agency of evolution consists of Fundamental Units of Evolution (FUEs), that is, units of genetic material that possess a substantial degree of evolutionary independence. The FUEs include both bona fide selfish elements such as viruses, viroids, transposons, and plasmids, which encode some of the information required for their own replication, and regular genes that possess quasi-independence owing to their distinct selective value that provides for their transfer between ensembles of FUEs (genomes) and preferential replication along with the rest of the recipient genome.
2. The history of replication of a genetic element without recombination is isomorphously represented by a directed tree graph (an arborescence, in the graph theory language). Recombination within a FUE is common between very closely related sequences where homologous recombination is feasible but becomes negligible for longer evolutionary distances. In contrast, shuffling of FUEs occurs at all evolutionary distances. Thus, a tree is a natural representation of the evolution of an individual FUE on the macro scale, but not of an ensemble of FUEs such as a genome.
3. The history of life is properly represented by the "forest" of evolutionary trees for individual FUEs (Forest of Life, or FOL). Search for trends and patterns in the FOL is a productive direction of study that leads to the delineation of ensembles of FUEs that evolve coherently for a certain time span owing to a shared history of vertical inheritance or horizontal gene transfer; these ensembles are commonly known as genomes, taxa, or clades, depending on the level of analysis. A small set of genes (the universal genetic core of life) might show a (mostly) coherent evolutionary trend that transcends the entire history of cellular life forms. However, it might not be useful to denote this trend "the tree of life", or organismal, or species tree because neither organisms nor species are fundamental units of life.
A logical analysis of the units and processes of biological evolution suggests that the natural fundamental unit of evolution is a FUE, that is, a genetic element with an independent evolutionary history. Evolution of a FUE on the macro scale is naturally represented by a tree. Only the full compendium of trees for individual FUEs (the FOL) is an adequate depiction of the evolution of life. Coherent evolution of FUEs over extended evolutionary intervals is a crucial aspect of the history of life but a "species" or "organismal" tree is not a fundamental concept.
This articles was reviewed by Valerian Dolja, W. Ford Doolittle, Nicholas Galtier, and William Martin
PMCID: PMC2761301  PMID: 19788730
16.  Co-evolution of primordial membranes and membrane proteins 
Trends in biochemical sciences  2009;34(4):206-215.
Studies of the past several decades have provided major insights into the structural organization of biological membranes and mechanisms of many membrane molecular machines. However, the origin(s) of the membrane(s) and membrane proteins remain enigmatic. We discuss different concepts of the origin and early evolution of membranes, with a focus on the evolution of the (im)permeability to charged molecules, such as proteins and nucleic acids, and small ions. Reconstruction of the evolution of F-type and A/V-type membrane ATPases (ATP synthases), which are either proton or sodium-dependent, might help understand not only the origin of membrane bioenergetics, but also of membranes themselves. We argue that evolution of biological membranes occurred as a process of co-evolution of lipid bilayers, membrane proteins and membrane bioenergetics.
PMCID: PMC2752816  PMID: 19303305
17.  A Universal Nonmonotonic Relationship between Gene Compactness and Expression Levels in Multicellular Eukaryotes 
Analysis of gene architecture and expression levels of four organisms, Homo sapiens, Caenorhabditis elegans, Drosophila melanogaster, and Arabidopsis thaliana, reveals a surprising, nonmonotonic, universal relationship between expression level and gene compactness. With increasing expression level, the genes tend at first to become longer but, from a certain level of expression, they become more and more compact, resulting in an approximate bell-shaped dependence. There are two leading hypotheses to explain the compactness of highly expressed genes. The selection hypothesis predicts that gene compactness is predominantly driven by the level of expression, whereas the genomic design hypothesis predicts that expression breadth across tissues is the driving force. We observed the connection between gene expression breadth in humans and gene compactness to be significantly weaker than the connection between expression level and compactness, a result that is compatible with the selection hypothesis but not the genome design hypothesis. The initial gene elongation with increasing expression level could be explained, at least in part, by accumulation of regulatory elements enhancing expression, in particular, in introns. This explanation is compatible with the observed positive correlation between intron density and expression level of a gene. Conversely, the trend toward increasing compactness for highly expressed genes could be caused by selection for minimization of energy and time expenditure during transcription and splicing and for increased fidelity of transcription, splicing, and/or translation that is likely to be particularly critical for highly expressed genes. Regardless of the exact nature of the forces that shape the gene architecture, we present evidence that, at least, in animals, coding and noncoding parts of genes show similar architectonic trends.
PMCID: PMC2817431  PMID: 20333206
eukaryotic gene structure; eukaryotic gene architecture; selection on gene compactness; genomic design; intron functionality; intron density
18.  Selection for minimization of translational frameshifting errors as a factor in the evolution of codon usage 
Nucleic Acids Research  2009;37(20):6799-6810.
In a wide range of genomes, it was observed that the usage of synonymous codons is biased toward specific codons and codon patterns. Factors that are implicated in the selection for codon usage include facilitation of fast and accurate translation. There are two types of translational errors: missense errors and processivity errors. There is considerable evidence in support of the hypothesis that codon usage is optimized to minimize missense errors. In contrast, little is known about the relationship between codon usage and frameshifting errors, an important form of processivity errors, which appear to occur at frequencies comparable to the frequencies of missense errors. Based on the recently proposed pause-and-slip model of frameshifting, we developed Frameshifting Robustness Score (FRS). We used this measure to test if the pattern of codon usage indicates optimization against frameshifting errors. We found that the FRS values of protein-coding sequences from four analyzed genomes (the bacteria Bacillus subtilis and Escherichia coli, and the yeasts Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Schizosaccharomyce pombe) were typically higher than expected by chance. Other properties of FRS patterns observed in B. subtilis, S. cerevisiae and S. pombe, such as the tendency of FRS to increase from the 5′- to 3′-end of protein-coding sequences, were also consistent with the hypothesis of optimization against frameshifting errors in translation. For E. coli, the results of different tests were less consistent, suggestive of a much weaker optimization, if any. Collectively, the results fit the concept of selection against mistranslation-induced protein misfolding being one of the factors shaping the evolution of both coding and non-coding sequences.
PMCID: PMC2777431  PMID: 19745054
19.  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
20.  Search for a 'Tree of Life' in the thicket of the phylogenetic forest 
Journal of Biology  2009;8(6):59.
Comparative genomics has revealed extensive horizontal gene transfer among prokaryotes, a development that is often considered to undermine the 'tree of life' concept. However, the possibility remains that a statistical central trend still exists in the phylogenetic 'forest of life'.
A comprehensive comparative analysis of a 'forest' of 6,901 phylogenetic trees for prokaryotic genes revealed a consistent phylogenetic signal, particularly among 102 nearly universal trees, despite high levels of topological inconsistency, probably due to horizontal gene transfer. Horizontal transfers seemed to be distributed randomly and did not obscure the central trend. The nearly universal trees were topologically similar to numerous other trees. Thus, the nearly universal trees might reflect a significant central tendency, although they cannot represent the forest completely. However, topological consistency was seen mostly at shallow tree depths and abruptly dropped at the level of the radiation of archaeal and bacterial phyla, suggesting that early phases of evolution could be non-tree-like (Biological Big Bang). Simulations of evolution under compressed cladogenesis or Biological Big Bang yielded a better fit to the observed dependence between tree inconsistency and phylogenetic depth for the compressed cladogenesis model.
Horizontal gene transfer is pervasive among prokaryotes: very few gene trees are fully consistent, making the original tree of life concept obsolete. A central trend that most probably represents vertical inheritance is discernible throughout the evolution of archaea and bacteria, although compressed cladogenesis complicates unambiguous resolution of the relationships between the major archaeal and bacterial clades.
PMCID: PMC2737373  PMID: 19594957
21.  Comprehensive comparative-genomic analysis of Type 2 toxin-antitoxin systems and related mobile stress response systems in prokaryotes 
Biology Direct  2009;4:19.
The prokaryotic toxin-antitoxin systems (TAS, also referred to as TA loci) are widespread, mobile two-gene modules that can be viewed as selfish genetic elements because they evolved mechanisms to become addictive for replicons and cells in which they reside, but also possess "normal" cellular functions in various forms of stress response and management of prokaryotic population. Several distinct TAS of type 1, where the toxin is a protein and the antitoxin is an antisense RNA, and numerous, unrelated TAS of type 2, in which both the toxin and the antitoxin are proteins, have been experimentally characterized, and it is suspected that many more remain to be identified.
We report a comprehensive comparative-genomic analysis of Type 2 toxin-antitoxin systems in prokaryotes. Using sensitive methods for distant sequence similarity search, genome context analysis and a new approach for the identification of mobile two-component systems, we identified numerous, previously unnoticed protein families that are homologous to toxins and antitoxins of known type 2 TAS. In addition, we predict 12 new families of toxins and 13 families of antitoxins, and also, predict a TAS or TAS-like activity for several gene modules that were not previously suspected to function in that capacity. In particular, we present indications that the two-gene module that encodes a minimal nucleotidyl transferase and the accompanying HEPN protein, and is extremely abundant in many archaea and bacteria, especially, thermophiles might comprise a novel TAS. We present a survey of previously known and newly predicted TAS in 750 complete genomes of archaea and bacteria, quantitatively demonstrate the exceptional mobility of the TAS, and explore the network of toxin-antitoxin pairings that combines plasticity with selectivity.
The defining properties of the TAS, namely, the typically small size of the toxin and antitoxin genes, fast evolution, and extensive horizontal mobility, make the task of comprehensive identification of these systems particularly challenging. However, these same properties can be exploited to develop context-based computational approaches which, combined with exhaustive analysis of subtle sequence similarities were employed in this work to substantially expand the current collection of TAS by predicting both previously unnoticed, derived versions of known toxins and antitoxins, and putative novel TAS-like systems. In a broader context, the TAS belong to the resistome domain of the prokaryotic mobilome which includes partially selfish, addictive gene cassettes involved in various aspects of stress response and organized under the same general principles as the TAS. The "selfish altruism", or "responsible selfishness", of TAS-like systems appears to be a defining feature of the resistome and an important characteristic of the entire prokaryotic pan-genome given that in the prokaryotic world the mobilome and the "stable" chromosomes form a dynamic continuum.
This paper was reviewed by Kenn Gerdes (nominated by Arcady Mushegian), Daniel Haft, Arcady Mushegian, and Andrei Osterman. For full reviews, go to the Reviewers' Reports section.
PMCID: PMC2701414  PMID: 19493340
22.  Analysis of Rare Genomic Changes Does Not Support the Unikont–Bikont Phylogeny and Suggests Cyanobacterial Symbiosis as the Point of Primary Radiation of Eukaryotes 
The deep phylogeny of eukaryotes is an important but extremely difficult problem of evolutionary biology. Five eukaryotic supergroups are relatively well established but the relationship between these supergroups remains elusive, and their divergence seems to best fit a “Big Bang” model. Attempts were made to root the tree of eukaryotes by using potential derived shared characters such as unique fusions of conserved genes. One popular model of eukaryotic evolution that emerged from this type of analysis is the unikont–bikont phylogeny: The unikont branch consists of Metazoa, Choanozoa, Fungi, and Amoebozoa, whereas bikonts include the rest of eukaryotes, namely, Plantae (green plants, Chlorophyta, and Rhodophyta), Chromalveolata, excavates, and Rhizaria. We reexamine the relationships between the eukaryotic supergroups using a genome-wide analysis of rare genomic changes (RGCs) associated with multiple, conserved amino acids (RGC_CAMs and RGC_CAs), to resolve trifurcations of major eukaryotic lineages. The results do not support the basal position of Chromalveolata with respect to Plantae and unikonts or the monophyly of the bikont group and appear to be best compatible with the monophyly of unikonts and Chromalveolata. Chromalveolata show a distinct, additional signal of affinity with Plantae, conceivably, owing to genes transferred from the secondary, red algal symbiont. Excavates are derived forms, with extremely long branches that complicate phylogenetic inference; nevertheless, the RGC analysis suggests that they are significantly more likely to cluster with the unikont–Chromalveolata assemblage than with the Plantae. Thus, the first split in eukaryotic evolution might lie between photosynthetic and nonphotosynthetic forms and so could have been triggered by the endosymbiosis between an ancestral unicellular eukaryote and a cyanobacterium that gave rise to the chloroplast.
PMCID: PMC2817406  PMID: 20333181
eukaryotic phylogeny; rare genomic changes; parsimony; substitutions; insertions; deletions
23.  Conformational flexibility and molecular interactions of an archaeal homologue of the Shwachman-Bodian-Diamond syndrome protein 
Defects in the human Shwachman-Bodian-Diamond syndrome (SBDS) protein-coding gene lead to the autosomal recessive disorder characterised by bone marrow dysfunction, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and skeletal abnormalities. This protein is highly conserved in eukaryotes and archaea but is not found in bacteria. Although genomic and biophysical studies have suggested involvement of this protein in RNA metabolism and in ribosome biogenesis, its interacting partners remain largely unknown.
We determined the crystal structure of the SBDS orthologue from Methanothermobacter thermautotrophicus (mthSBDS). This structure shows that SBDS proteins are highly flexible, with the N-terminal FYSH domain and the C-terminal ferredoxin-like domain capable of undergoing substantial rotational adjustments with respect to the central domain. Affinity chromatography identified several proteins from the large ribosomal subunit as possible interacting partners of mthSBDS. Moreover, SELEX (Systematic Evolution of Ligands by EXponential enrichment) experiments, combined with electrophoretic mobility shift assays (EMSA) suggest that mthSBDS does not interact with RNA molecules in a sequence specific manner.
It is suggested that functional interactions of SBDS proteins with their partners could be facilitated by rotational adjustments of the N-terminal and the C-terminal domains with respect to the central domain. Examination of the SBDS protein structure and domain movements together with its possible interaction with large ribosomal subunit proteins suggest that these proteins could participate in ribosome function.
PMCID: PMC2695463  PMID: 19454024
24.  Evolution of alternative and constitutive regions of mammalian 5'UTRs 
BMC Genomics  2009;10:162.
Alternative splicing (AS) in protein-coding sequences has emerged as an important mechanism of regulation and diversification of animal gene function. By contrast, the extent and roles of alternative events including AS and alternative transcription initiation (ATI) within the 5'-untranslated regions (5'UTRs) of mammalian genes are not well characterized.
We evaluated the abundance, conservation and evolution of putative regulatory control elements, namely, upstream start codons (uAUGs) and open reading frames (uORFs), in the 5'UTRs of human and mouse genes impacted by alternative events. For genes with alternative 5'UTRs, the fraction of alternative sequences (those present in a subset of the transcripts) is much greater than that in the corresponding coding sequence, conceivably, because 5'UTRs are not bound by constraints on protein structure that limit AS in coding regions. Alternative regions of mammalian 5'UTRs evolve faster and are subject to a weaker purifying selection than constitutive portions. This relatively weak selection results in over-abundance of uAUGs and uORFs in the alternative regions of 5'UTRs compared to constitutive regions. Nevertheless, even in alternative regions, uORFs evolve under a stronger selection than the rest of the sequences, indicating that some of the uORFs are conserved regulatory elements; some of the non-conserved uORFs could be involved in species-specific regulation.
The findings on the evolution and selection in alternative and constitutive regions presented here are consistent with the hypothesis that alternative events, namely, AS and ATI, in 5'UTRs of mammalian genes are likely to contribute to the regulation of translation.
PMCID: PMC2674463  PMID: 19371439
25.  Evolution of DNA polymerases: an inactivated polymerase-exonuclease module in Pol ε and a chimeric origin of eukaryotic polymerases from two classes of archaeal ancestors 
Biology Direct  2009;4:11.
Evolution of DNA polymerases, the key enzymes of DNA replication and repair, is central to any reconstruction of the history of cellular life. However, the details of the evolutionary relationships between DNA polymerases of archaea and eukaryotes remain unresolved.
We performed a comparative analysis of archaeal, eukaryotic, and bacterial B-family DNA polymerases, which are the main replicative polymerases in archaea and eukaryotes, combined with an analysis of domain architectures. Surprisingly, we found that eukaryotic Polymerase ε consists of two tandem exonuclease-polymerase modules, the active N-terminal module and a C-terminal module in which both enzymatic domains are inactivated. The two modules are only distantly related to each other, an observation that suggests the possibility that Pol ε evolved as a result of insertion and subsequent inactivation of a distinct polymerase, possibly, of bacterial descent, upstream of the C-terminal Zn-fingers, rather than by tandem duplication. The presence of an inactivated exonuclease-polymerase module in Pol ε parallels a similar inactivation of both enzymatic domains in a distinct family of archaeal B-family polymerases. The results of phylogenetic analysis indicate that eukaryotic B-family polymerases, most likely, originate from two distantly related archaeal B-family polymerases, one form giving rise to Pol ε, and the other one to the common ancestor of Pol α, Pol δ, and Pol ζ. The C-terminal Zn-fingers that are present in all eukaryotic B-family polymerases, unexpectedly, are homologous to the Zn-finger of archaeal D-family DNA polymerases that are otherwise unrelated to the B family. The Zn-finger of Polε shows a markedly greater similarity to the counterpart in archaeal PolD than the Zn-fingers of other eukaryotic B-family polymerases.
Evolution of eukaryotic DNA polymerases seems to have involved previously unnoticed complex events. We hypothesize that the archaeal ancestor of eukaryotes encoded three DNA polymerases, namely, two distinct B-family polymerases and a D-family polymerase all of which contributed to the evolution of the eukaryotic replication machinery. The Zn-finger might have been acquired from PolD by the B-family form that gave rise to Pol ε prior to or in the course of eukaryogenesis, and subsequently, was captured by the ancestor of the other B-family eukaryotic polymerases. The inactivated polymerase-exonuclease module of Pol ε might have evolved by fusion with a distinct polymerase, rather than by duplication of the active module of Pol ε, and is likely to play an important role in the assembly of eukaryotic replication and repair complexes.
This article was reviewed by Patrick Forterre, Arcady Mushegian, and Chris Ponting. For the full reviews, please go to the Reviewers' Reports section.
PMCID: PMC2669801  PMID: 19296856

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