Ribosomal proteins are encoded in all genomes of cellular life forms and are, generally, well conserved during evolution. In prokaryotes, the genes for most ribosomal proteins are clustered in several highly conserved operons, which ensures efficient co-regulation of their expression. Duplications of ribosomal-protein genes are infrequent, and given their coordinated expression and functioning, it is generally assumed that ribosomal-protein genes are unlikely to undergo horizontal transfer. However, with the accumulation of numerous complete genome sequences of prokaryotes, several paralogous pairs of ribosomal protein genes have been identified. Here we analyze all such cases and attempt to reconstruct the evolutionary history of these ribosomal proteins.
Complete bacterial genomes were searched for duplications of ribosomal proteins. Ribosomal proteins L36, L33, L31, S14 are each duplicated in several bacterial genomes and ribosomal proteins L11, L28, L7/L12, S1, S15, S18 are so far duplicated in only one genome each. Sequence analysis of the four ribosomal proteins, for which paralogs were detected in several genomes, two of the ribosomal proteins duplicated in one genome (L28 and S18), and the ribosomal protein L32 showed that each of them comes in two distinct versions. One form contains a predicted metal-binding Zn-ribbon that consists of four conserved cysteines (in some cases replaced by histidines), whereas, in the second form, these metal-chelating residues are completely or partially replaced. Typically, genomes containing paralogous genes for these ribosomal proteins encode both versions, designated C+ and C-, respectively. Analysis of phylogenetic trees for these seven ribosomal proteins, combined with comparison of genomic contexts for the respective genes, indicates that in most, if not all cases, their evolution involved a duplication of the ancestral C+ form early in bacterial evolution, with subsequent alternative loss of the C+ and C- forms in different lineages. Additionally, evidence was obtained for a role of horizontal gene transfer in the evolution of these ribosomal proteins, with multiple cases of gene displacement 'in situ', that is, without a change of the gene order in the recipient genome.
A more complex picture of evolution of bacterial ribosomal proteins than previously suspected is emerging from these results, with major contributions of lineage-specific gene loss and horizontal gene transfer. The recurrent theme of emergence and disruption of Zn-ribbons in bacterial ribosomal proteins awaits a functional interpretation.