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1.  Evolution of the RAG1-RAG2 locus: both proteins came from the same transposon 
Biology Direct  2015;10:20.
The RAG1 and RAG2 proteins are essential subunits of the V(D)J recombinase that is required for the generation of the enormous variability of antibodies and T-cell receptors in jawed vertebrates. It was demonstrated previously that the 600-aa catalytic core of RAG1 evolved from the transposase of the Transib superfamily transposons. However, although homologs of RAG1 and RAG2 genes are adjacent in the purple sea urchin genome, a transposon encoding both proteins so far has not been reported. Here we describe such transposons in the genomes of green sea urchin, a starfish and an oyster. Comparison of the domain architectures of the RAG1 homologs in these transposons, denoted TransibSU, and other Transib superfamily transposases provides for reconstruction of the structure of the hypothetical TransibVDJ transposon that gave rise to the VDJ recombinases at the onset of vertebrate evolution some 500 million years ago.
This article was reviewed by Mart Krupovic and I. King Jordan.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s13062-015-0055-8) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4411706  PMID: 25928409
Molecular evolution; genetics; immune system; V(D)J recombination; RAG1 and RAG2 proteins; Transib DNA transposons; Transib transposase
2.  A new family of hybrid virophages from an animal gut metagenome 
Biology Direct  2015;10:19.
Search of metagenomics sequence databases for homologs of virophage capsid proteins resulted in the discovery of a new family of virophages in the sheep rumen metagenome. The genomes of the rumen virophages (RVP) encode a typical virophage major capsid protein, ATPase and protease combined with a Polinton-type, protein primed family B DNA polymerase. The RVP genomes appear to be linear molecules, with terminal inverted repeats. Thus, the RVP seem to represent virophage-Polinton hybrids that are likely capable of formation of infectious virions. Virion proteins of mimiviruses were detected in the same metagenomes as the RVP suggesting that the virophages of the new family parasitize on giant viruses that infect protist inhabitants of the rumen.
This article was reviewed by Mart Krupovic and Kenneth Stedman; for complete reviews, see the Reviewers’ Reports section.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s13062-015-0054-9) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4409740  PMID: 25909276
3.  Babela massiliensis, a representative of a widespread bacterial phylum with unusual adaptations to parasitism in amoebae 
Biology Direct  2015;10:13.
Only a small fraction of bacteria and archaea that are identifiable by metagenomics can be grown on standard media. Recent efforts on deep metagenomics sequencing, single-cell genomics and the use of specialized culture conditions (culturomics) increasingly yield novel microbes some of which represent previously uncharacterized phyla and possess unusual biological traits.
We report isolation and genome analysis of Babela massiliensis, an obligate intracellular parasite of Acanthamoeba castellanii. B. massiliensis shows an unusual, fission mode of cell multiplication whereby large, polymorphic bodies accumulate in the cytoplasm of infected amoeba and then split into mature bacterial cells. This unique mechanism of cell division is associated with a deep degradation of the cell division machinery and delayed expression of the ftsZ gene. The genome of B. massiliensis consists of a circular chromosome approximately 1.12 megabase in size that encodes, 981 predicted proteins, 38 tRNAs and one typical rRNA operon. Phylogenetic analysis shows that B. massiliensis belongs to the putative bacterial phylum TM6 that so far was represented by the draft genome of the JCVI TM6SC1 bacterium obtained by single cell genomics and numerous environmental sequences.
Currently, B. massiliensis is the only cultivated member of the putative TM6 phylum. Phylogenomic analysis shows diverse taxonomic affinities for B. massiliensis genes, suggestive of multiple gene acquisitions via horizontal transfer from other bacteria and eukaryotes. Horizontal gene transfer is likely to be facilitated by the cohabitation of diverse parasites and symbionts inside amoeba. B. massiliensis encompasses many genes encoding proteins implicated in parasite-host interaction including the greatest number of ankyrin repeats among sequenced bacteria and diverse proteins related to the ubiquitin system. Characterization of B. massiliensis, a representative of a distinct bacterial phylum, thanks to its ability to grow in amoeba, reaffirms the critical role of diverse culture approaches in microbiology.
This article was reviewed by Dr. Igor Zhulin, Dr. Jeremy Selengut, and Pr Martijn Huynen.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s13062-015-0043-z) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4378268  PMID: 25884386
Intracellular bacteria; Amoeba; Bacterial replication
4.  Plant viruses of the Amalgaviridae family evolved via recombination between viruses with double-stranded and negative-strand RNA genomes 
Biology Direct  2015;10:12.
Plant viruses of the recently recognized family Amalgaviridae have monopartite double-stranded (ds) RNA genomes and encode two proteins: an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp) and a putative capsid protein (CP). Whereas the RdRp of amalgaviruses has been found to be most closely related to the RdRps of dsRNA viruses of the family Partitiviridae, the provenance of their CP remained obscure. Here we show that the CP of amalgaviruses is homologous to the nucleocapsid proteins of negative-strand RNA viruses of the genera Phlebovirus (Bunyaviridae) and Tenuivirus. The chimeric genomes of amalgaviruses are a testament to the effectively limitless gene exchange between viruses that shaped the evolution of the virosphere.
Reviewers: This article was reviewed by Lakshminarayan M. Iyer and Nick V. Grishin. For complete reviews, see the Reviewers’ Reports section.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s13062-015-0047-8) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4377212  PMID: 25886840
Amalgaviridae; Virus origin; dsRNA viruses; Negative-sense RNA viruses; Capsid proteins
5.  Reviewer acknowledgement 
Biology Direct  2015;10:7.
Contributing reviewers
The editors of Biology Direct would like to thank all the reviewers who have contributed to the journal in Volume 9 (2014).
PMCID: PMC4336480
6.  Chordopoxvirus protein F12 implicated in enveloped virion morphogenesis is an inactivated DNA polymerase 
Biology Direct  2014;9:22.
Through the course of their evolution, viruses with large genomes have acquired numerous host genes, most of which perform function in virus reproduction in a manner that is related to their original activities in the cells, but some are exapted for new roles. Here we report the unexpected finding that protein F12, which is conserved among the chordopoxviruses and is implicated in the morphogenesis of enveloped intracellular virions, is a derived DNA polymerase, possibly of bacteriophage origin, in which the polymerase domain and probably the exonuclease domain have been inactivated. Thus, F12 appears to present a rare example of a drastic, exaptive functional change in virus evolution.
Reviewers: This article was reviewed by Frank Eisenhaber and Juergen Brosius. For complete reviews, go the Reviewers’ Reports section.
PMCID: PMC4304020  PMID: 25374149
DNA polymerase; Exaptation; Poxviruses; Evolution of viruses
7.  Impairment of translation in neurons as a putative causative factor for autism 
Biology Direct  2014;9:16.
A dramatic increase in the prevalence of autism and Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) has been observed over the last two decades in USA, Europe and Asia. Given the accumulating data on the possible role of translation in the etiology of ASD, we analyzed potential effects of rare synonymous substitutions associated with ASD on mRNA stability, splicing enhancers and silencers, and codon usage.
Presentation of the hypothesis
We hypothesize that subtle impairment of translation, resulting in dosage imbalance of neuron-specific proteins, contributes to the etiology of ASD synergistically with environmental neurotoxins.
Testing the hypothesis
A statistically significant shift from optimal to suboptimal codons caused by rare synonymous substitutions associated with ASD was detected whereas no effect on other analyzed characteristics of transcripts was identified. This result suggests that the impact of rare codons on the translation of genes involved in neuron development, even if slight in magnitude, could contribute to the pathogenesis of ASD in the presence of an aggressive chemical background. This hypothesis could be tested by further analysis of ASD-associated mutations, direct biochemical characterization of their effects, and assessment of in vivo effects on animal models.
Implications of the hypothesis
It seems likely that the synergistic action of environmental hazards with genetic variations that in themselves have limited or no deleterious effects but are potentiated by the environmental factors is a general principle that underlies the alarming increase in the ASD prevalence.
This article was reviewed by Andrey Rzhetsky, Neil R. Smalheiser, and Shamil R. Sunyaev.
PMCID: PMC4099083  PMID: 25011470
Synonymous mutations; Single nucleotide polymorphism; Codon usage; Splicing enhancer; Splicing silencer; mRNA secondary structure; Transcription factor binding; Neurotoxin
8.  Pseudo-chaotic oscillations in CRISPR-virus coevolution predicted by bifurcation analysis 
Biology Direct  2014;9:13.
The CRISPR-Cas systems of adaptive antivirus immunity are present in most archaea and many bacteria, and provide resistance to specific viruses or plasmids by inserting fragments of foreign DNA into the host genome and then utilizing transcripts of these spacers to inactivate the cognate foreign genome. The recent development of powerful genome engineering tools on the basis of CRISPR-Cas has sharply increased the interest in the diversity and evolution of these systems. Comparative genomic data indicate that during evolution of prokaryotes CRISPR-Cas loci are lost and acquired via horizontal gene transfer at high rates. Mathematical modeling and initial experimental studies of CRISPR-carrying microbes and viruses reveal complex coevolutionary dynamics.
We performed a bifurcation analysis of models of coevolution of viruses and microbial host that possess CRISPR-Cas hereditary adaptive immunity systems. The analyzed Malthusian and logistic models display complex, and in particular, quasi-chaotic oscillation regimes that have not been previously observed experimentally or in agent-based models of the CRISPR-mediated immunity. The key factors for the appearance of the quasi-chaotic oscillations are the non-linear dependence of the host immunity on the virus load and the partitioning of the hosts into the immune and susceptible populations, so that the system consists of three components.
Bifurcation analysis of CRISPR-host coevolution model predicts complex regimes including quasi-chaotic oscillations. The quasi-chaotic regimes of virus-host coevolution are likely to be biologically relevant given the evolutionary instability of the CRISPR-Cas loci revealed by comparative genomics. The results of this analysis might have implications beyond the CRISPR-Cas systems, i.e. could describe the behavior of any adaptive immunity system with a heritable component, be it genetic or epigenetic. These predictions are experimentally testable.
Reviewers’ reports
This manuscript was reviewed by Sandor Pongor, Sergei Maslov and Marek Kimmel. For the complete reports, go to the Reviewers’ Reports section.
PMCID: PMC4096434  PMID: 24986220
9.  Conservation of major and minor jelly-roll capsid proteins in Polinton (Maverick) transposons suggests that they are bona fide viruses 
Biology Direct  2014;9:6.
This article was reviewed by Lakshminarayan M. Iyer and I. King Jordan. For complete reviews, see the Reviewers’ Reports section.
Polintons (also known as Mavericks) and Tlr elements of Tetrahymena thermophila represent two families of large DNA transposons widespread in eukaryotes. Here, we show that both Polintons and Tlr elements encode two key virion proteins, the major capsid protein with the double jelly-roll fold and the minor capsid protein, known as the penton, with the single jelly-roll topology. This observation along with the previously noted conservation of the genes for viral genome packaging ATPase and adenovirus-like protease strongly suggests that Polintons and Tlr elements combine features of bona fide viruses and transposons. We propose the name ‘Polintoviruses’ to denote these putative viruses that could have played a central role in the evolution of several groups of DNA viruses of eukaryotes.
PMCID: PMC4028283  PMID: 24773695
Polintons; Mavericks; Transposable elements; Double jelly-roll fold; Capsid proteins; Virus evolution
10.  Pandoraviruses are highly derived phycodnaviruses 
Biology Direct  2013;8:25.
The recently discovered Pandoraviruses are by far the largest viruses known, with their 2 megabase genomes exceeding in size the genomes of numerous bacteria and archaea. Pandoraviruses show a distant relationship with other nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses (NCLDV) of eukaryotes, lack some of the NCLDV core genes and in particular do not appear to be specifically related to the other, better characterized family of giant viruses, the Mimiviridae. Here we report phylogenetic analysis of 6 core NCLDV genes that confidently places Pandoraviruses within the family Phycodnaviridae, with an apparent specific affinity with Coccolithoviruses. We conclude that, despite their many unusual characteristics, Pandoraviruses are highly derived phycodnaviruses. These findings imply that giant viruses have independently evolved from smaller NCLDV on at least two occasions.
This article was reviewed by Patrick Forterre and Lakshminarayan Iyer. For the full reviews, see the Reviewers’ reports section.
PMCID: PMC3924356  PMID: 24148757
11.  Parabolic replicator dynamics and the principle of minimum Tsallis information gain 
Biology Direct  2013;8:19.
Non-linear, parabolic (sub-exponential) and hyperbolic (super-exponential) models of prebiological evolution of molecular replicators have been proposed and extensively studied. The parabolic models appear to be the most realistic approximations of real-life replicator systems due primarily to product inhibition. Unlike the more traditional exponential models, the distribution of individual frequencies in an evolving parabolic population is not described by the Maximum Entropy (MaxEnt) Principle in its traditional form, whereby the distribution with the maximum Shannon entropy is chosen among all the distributions that are possible under the given constraints. We sought to identify a more general form of the MaxEnt principle that would be applicable to parabolic growth.
We consider a model of a population that reproduces according to the parabolic growth law and show that the frequencies of individuals in the population minimize the Tsallis relative entropy (non-additive information gain) at each time moment. Next, we consider a model of a parabolically growing population that maintains a constant total size and provide an “implicit” solution for this system. We show that in this case, the frequencies of the individuals in the population also minimize the Tsallis information gain at each moment of the ‘internal time” of the population.
The results of this analysis show that the general MaxEnt principle is the underlying law for the evolution of a broad class of replicator systems including not only exponential but also parabolic and hyperbolic systems. The choice of the appropriate entropy (information) function depends on the growth dynamics of a particular class of systems. The Tsallis entropy is non-additive for independent subsystems, i.e. the information on the subsystems is insufficient to describe the system as a whole. In the context of prebiotic evolution, this “non-reductionist” nature of parabolic replicator systems might reflect the importance of group selection and competition between ensembles of cooperating replicators.
This article was reviewed by Viswanadham Sridhara (nominated by Claus Wilke), Puushottam Dixit (nominated by Sergei Maslov), and Nick Grishin. For the complete reviews, see the Reviewers’ Reports section.
PMCID: PMC3765284  PMID: 23937956
Replicator equation; Parabolic growth; Tsallis entropy; Non-extensive statistical mechanics; MaxEnt principle
12.  Comprehensive analysis of the HEPN superfamily: identification of novel roles in intra-genomic conflicts, defense, pathogenesis and RNA processing 
Biology Direct  2013;8:15.
The major role of enzymatic toxins that target nucleic acids in biological conflicts at all levels has become increasingly apparent thanks in large part to the advances of comparative genomics. Typically, toxins evolve rapidly hampering the identification of these proteins by sequence analysis. Here we analyze an unexpectedly widespread superfamily of toxin domains most of which possess RNase activity.
The HEPN superfamily is comprised of all α-helical domains that were first identified as being associated with DNA polymerase β-type nucleotidyltransferases in prokaryotes and animal Sacsin proteins. Using sensitive sequence and structure comparison methods, we vastly extend the HEPN superfamily by identifying numerous novel families and by detecting diverged HEPN domains in several known protein families. The new HEPN families include the RNase LS and LsoA catalytic domains, KEN domains (e.g. RNaseL and Ire1) and the RNase domains of RloC and PrrC. The majority of HEPN domains contain conserved motifs that constitute a metal-independent endoRNase active site. Some HEPN domains lacking this motif probably function as non-catalytic RNA-binding domains, such as in the case of the mannitol repressor MtlR. Our analysis shows that HEPN domains function as toxins that are shared by numerous systems implicated in intra-genomic, inter-genomic and intra-organismal conflicts across the three domains of cellular life. In prokaryotes HEPN domains are essential components of numerous toxin-antitoxin (TA) and abortive infection (Abi) systems and in addition are tightly associated with many restriction-modification (R-M) and CRISPR-Cas systems, and occasionally with other defense systems such as Pgl and Ter. We present evidence of multiple modes of action of HEPN domains in these systems, which include direct attack on viral RNAs (e.g. LsoA and RNase LS) in conjunction with other RNase domains (e.g. a novel RNase H fold domain, NamA), suicidal or dormancy-inducing attack on self RNAs (RM systems and possibly CRISPR-Cas systems), and suicidal attack coupled with direct interaction with phage components (Abi systems). These findings are compatible with the hypothesis on coupling of pathogen-targeting (immunity) and self-directed (programmed cell death and dormancy induction) responses in the evolution of robust antiviral strategies. We propose that altruistic cell suicide mediated by HEPN domains and other functionally similar RNases was essential for the evolution of kin and group selection and cell cooperation. HEPN domains were repeatedly acquired by eukaryotes and incorporated into several core functions such as endonucleolytic processing of the 5.8S-25S/28S rRNA precursor (Las1), a novel ER membrane-associated RNA degradation system (C6orf70), sensing of unprocessed transcripts at the nuclear periphery (Swt1). Multiple lines of evidence suggest that, similar to prokaryotes, HEPN proteins were recruited to antiviral, antitransposon, apoptotic systems or RNA-level response to unfolded proteins (Sacsin and KEN domains) in several groups of eukaryotes.
Extensive sequence and structure comparisons reveal unexpectedly broad presence of the HEPN domain in an enormous variety of defense and stress response systems across the tree of life. In addition, HEPN domains have been recruited to perform essential functions, in particular in eukaryotic rRNA processing. These findings are expected to stimulate experiments that could shed light on diverse cellular processes across the three domains of life.
This article was reviewed by Martijn Huynen, Igor Zhulin and Nick Grishin
PMCID: PMC3710099  PMID: 23768067
13.  Biology direct: celebrating 7 years of open, published peer review 
Biology Direct  2013;8:11.
PMCID: PMC3651295  PMID: 23631729
14.  Insights into archaeal evolution and symbiosis from the genomes of a nanoarchaeon and its inferred crenarchaeal host from Obsidian Pool, Yellowstone National Park 
Biology Direct  2013;8:9.
A single cultured marine organism, Nanoarchaeum equitans, represents the Nanoarchaeota branch of symbiotic Archaea, with a highly reduced genome and unusual features such as multiple split genes.
The first terrestrial hyperthermophilic member of the Nanoarchaeota was collected from Obsidian Pool, a thermal feature in Yellowstone National Park, separated by single cell isolation, and sequenced together with its putative host, a Sulfolobales archaeon. Both the new Nanoarchaeota (Nst1) and N. equitans lack most biosynthetic capabilities, and phylogenetic analysis of ribosomal RNA and protein sequences indicates that the two form a deep-branching archaeal lineage. However, the Nst1 genome is more than 20% larger, and encodes a complete gluconeogenesis pathway as well as the full complement of archaeal flagellum proteins. With a larger genome, a smaller repertoire of split protein encoding genes and no split non-contiguous tRNAs, Nst1 appears to have experienced less severe genome reduction than N. equitans. These findings imply that, rather than representing ancestral characters, the extremely compact genomes and multiple split genes of Nanoarchaeota are derived characters associated with their symbiotic or parasitic lifestyle. The inferred host of Nst1 is potentially autotrophic, with a streamlined genome and simplified central and energetic metabolism as compared to other Sulfolobales.
Comparison of the N. equitans and Nst1 genomes suggests that the marine and terrestrial lineages of Nanoarchaeota share a common ancestor that was already a symbiont of another archaeon. The two distinct Nanoarchaeota-host genomic data sets offer novel insights into the evolution of archaeal symbiosis and parasitism, enabling further studies of the cellular and molecular mechanisms of these relationships.
This article was reviewed by Patrick Forterre, Bettina Siebers (nominated by Michael Galperin) and Purification Lopez-Garcia
PMCID: PMC3655853  PMID: 23607440
Archaea evolution; Single cell genomics; Symbiosis; Hyperthermophiles; Split genes
15.  Updated clusters of orthologous genes for Archaea: a complex ancestor of the Archaea and the byways of horizontal gene transfer 
Biology Direct  2012;7:46.
Collections of Clusters of Orthologous Genes (COGs) provide indispensable tools for comparative genomic analysis, evolutionary reconstruction and functional annotation of new genomes. Initially, COGs were made for all complete genomes of cellular life forms that were available at the time. However, with the accumulation of thousands of complete genomes, construction of a comprehensive COG set has become extremely computationally demanding and prone to error propagation, necessitating the switch to taxon-specific COG collections. Previously, we reported the collection of COGs for 41 genomes of Archaea (arCOGs). Here we present a major update of the arCOGs and describe evolutionary reconstructions to reveal general trends in the evolution of Archaea.
The updated version of the arCOG database incorporates 91% of the pangenome of 120 archaea (251,032 protein-coding genes altogether) into 10,335 arCOGs. Using this new set of arCOGs, we performed maximum likelihood reconstruction of the genome content of archaeal ancestral forms and gene gain and loss events in archaeal evolution. This reconstruction shows that the last Common Ancestor of the extant Archaea was an organism of greater complexity than most of the extant archaea, probably with over 2,500 protein-coding genes. The subsequent evolution of almost all archaeal lineages was apparently dominated by gene loss resulting in genome streamlining. Overall, in the evolution of Archaea as well as a representative set of bacteria that was similarly analyzed for comparison, gene losses are estimated to outnumber gene gains at least 4 to 1. Analysis of specific patterns of gene gain in Archaea shows that, although some groups, in particular Halobacteria, acquire substantially more genes than others, on the whole, gene exchange between major groups of Archaea appears to be largely random, with no major ‘highways’ of horizontal gene transfer.
The updated collection of arCOGs is expected to become a key resource for comparative genomics, evolutionary reconstruction and functional annotation of new archaeal genomes. Given that, in spite of the major increase in the number of genomes, the conserved core of archaeal genes appears to be stabilizing, the major evolutionary trends revealed here have a chance to stand the test of time.
This article was reviewed by (for complete reviews see the Reviewers’ Reports section): Dr. PLG, Prof. PF, Dr. PL (nominated by Prof. JPG).
PMCID: PMC3534625  PMID: 23241446
Archaea; Orthologs; Horizontal gene transfer
16.  Live virus-free or die: coupling of antivirus immunity and programmed suicide or dormancy in prokaryotes 
Biology Direct  2012;7:40.
The virus-host arms race is a major theater for evolutionary innovation. Archaea and bacteria have evolved diverse, elaborate antivirus defense systems that function on two general principles: i) immune systems that discriminate self DNA from nonself DNA and specifically destroy the foreign, in particular viral, genomes, whereas the host genome is protected, or ii) programmed cell suicide or dormancy induced by infection.
Presentation of the hypothesis
Almost all genomic loci encoding immunity systems such as CRISPR-Cas, restriction-modification and DNA phosphorothioation also encompass suicide genes, in particular those encoding known and predicted toxin nucleases, which do not appear to be directly involved in immunity. In contrast, the immunity systems do not appear to encode antitoxins found in typical toxin-antitoxin systems. This raises the possibility that components of the immunity system themselves act as reversible inhibitors of the associated toxin proteins or domains as has been demonstrated for the Escherichia coli anticodon nuclease PrrC that interacts with the PrrI restriction-modification system. We hypothesize that coupling of diverse immunity and suicide/dormancy systems in prokaryotes evolved under selective pressure to provide robustness to the antivirus response. We further propose that the involvement of suicide/dormancy systems in the coupled antivirus response could take two distinct forms:
1) induction of a dormancy-like state in the infected cell to ‘buy time’ for activation of adaptive immunity; 2) suicide or dormancy as the final recourse to prevent viral spread triggered by the failure of immunity.
Testing the hypothesis
This hypothesis entails many experimentally testable predictions. Specifically, we predict that Cas2 protein present in all cas operons is a mRNA-cleaving nuclease (interferase) that might be activated at an early stage of virus infection to enable incorporation of virus-specific spacers into the CRISPR locus or to trigger cell suicide when the immune function of CRISPR-Cas systems fails. Similarly, toxin-like activity is predicted for components of numerous other defense loci.
Implications of the hypothesis
The hypothesis implies that antivirus response in prokaryotes involves key decision-making steps at which the cell chooses the path to follow by sensing the course of virus infection.
This article was reviewed by Arcady Mushegian, Etienne Joly and Nick Grishin. For complete reviews, go to the Reviewers’ reports section.
PMCID: PMC3506569  PMID: 23151069
17.  Proteorhodopsin genes in giant viruses 
Biology Direct  2012;7:34.
Viruses with large genomes encode numerous proteins that do not directly participate in virus biogenesis but rather modify key functional systems of infected cells. We report that a distinct group of giant viruses infecting unicellular eukaryotes that includes Organic Lake Phycodnaviruses and Phaeocystis globosa virus encode predicted proteorhodopsins that have not been previously detected in viruses. Search of metagenomic sequence data shows that putative viral proteorhodopsins are extremely abundant in marine environments. Phylogenetic analysis suggests that giant viruses acquired proteorhodopsins via horizontal gene transfer from proteorhodopsin-encoding protists although the actual donor(s) could not be presently identified. The pattern of conservation of the predicted functionally important amino acid residues suggests that viral proteorhodopsin homologs function as sensory rhodopsins. We hypothesize that viral rhodopsins modulate light-dependent signaling, in particular phototaxis, in infected protists.
This article was reviewed by Igor B. Zhulin and Laksminarayan M. Iyer. For the full reviews, see the Reviewers’ reports section.
PMCID: PMC3500653  PMID: 23036091
18.  Does the central dogma still stand? 
Biology Direct  2012;7:27.
Prions are agents of analog, protein conformation-based inheritance that can confer beneficial phenotypes to cells, especially under stress. Combined with genetic variation, prion-mediated inheritance can be channeled into prion-independent genomic inheritance. Latest screening shows that prions are common, at least in fungi. Thus, there is non-negligible flow of information from proteins to the genome in modern cells, in a direct violation of the Central Dogma of molecular biology. The prion-mediated heredity that violates the Central Dogma appears to be a specific, most radical manifestation of the widespread assimilation of protein (epigenetic) variation into genetic variation. The epigenetic variation precedes and facilitates genetic adaptation through a general ‘look-ahead effect’ of phenotypic mutations. This direction of the information flow is likely to be one of the important routes of environment-genome interaction and could substantially contribute to the evolution of complex adaptive traits.
This article was reviewed by Jerzy Jurka, Pierre Pontarotti and Juergen Brosius. For the complete reviews, see the Reviewers’ Reports section.
PMCID: PMC3472225  PMID: 22913395
19.  Origin and evolution of spliceosomal introns 
Biology Direct  2012;7:11.
Evolution of exon-intron structure of eukaryotic genes has been a matter of long-standing, intensive debate. The introns-early concept, later rebranded ‘introns first’ held that protein-coding genes were interrupted by numerous introns even at the earliest stages of life's evolution and that introns played a major role in the origin of proteins by facilitating recombination of sequences coding for small protein/peptide modules. The introns-late concept held that introns emerged only in eukaryotes and new introns have been accumulating continuously throughout eukaryotic evolution. Analysis of orthologous genes from completely sequenced eukaryotic genomes revealed numerous shared intron positions in orthologous genes from animals and plants and even between animals, plants and protists, suggesting that many ancestral introns have persisted since the last eukaryotic common ancestor (LECA). Reconstructions of intron gain and loss using the growing collection of genomes of diverse eukaryotes and increasingly advanced probabilistic models convincingly show that the LECA and the ancestors of each eukaryotic supergroup had intron-rich genes, with intron densities comparable to those in the most intron-rich modern genomes such as those of vertebrates. The subsequent evolution in most lineages of eukaryotes involved primarily loss of introns, with only a few episodes of substantial intron gain that might have accompanied major evolutionary innovations such as the origin of metazoa. The original invasion of self-splicing Group II introns, presumably originating from the mitochondrial endosymbiont, into the genome of the emerging eukaryote might have been a key factor of eukaryogenesis that in particular triggered the origin of endomembranes and the nucleus. Conversely, splicing errors gave rise to alternative splicing, a major contribution to the biological complexity of multicellular eukaryotes. There is no indication that any prokaryote has ever possessed a spliceosome or introns in protein-coding genes, other than relatively rare mobile self-splicing introns. Thus, the introns-first scenario is not supported by any evidence but exon-intron structure of protein-coding genes appears to have evolved concomitantly with the eukaryotic cell, and introns were a major factor of evolution throughout the history of eukaryotes. This article was reviewed by I. King Jordan, Manuel Irimia (nominated by Anthony Poole), Tobias Mourier (nominated by Anthony Poole), and Fyodor Kondrashov. For the complete reports, see the Reviewers’ Reports section.
PMCID: PMC3488318  PMID: 22507701
Intron sliding; Intron gain; Intron loss; Spliceosome; Splicing signals; Evolution of exon/intron structure; Alternative splicing; Phylogenetic trees; Mobile domains; Eukaryotic ancestor
20.  Archaeal origin of tubulin 
Biology Direct  2012;7:10.
Tubulins are a family of GTPases that are key components of the cytoskeleton in all eukaryotes and are distantly related to the FtsZ GTPase that is involved in cell division in most bacteria and many archaea. Among prokaryotes, bona fide tubulins have been identified only in bacteria of the genus Prosthecobacter. These bacterial tubulin genes appear to have been horizontally transferred from eukaryotes. Here we describe tubulins encoded in the genomes of thaumarchaeota of the genus Nitrosoarchaeum that we denote artubulins Phylogenetic analysis results are compatible with the origin of eukaryotic tubulins from artubulins. These findings expand the emerging picture of the origin of key components of eukaryotic functional systems from ancestral forms that are scattered among the extant archaea.
This article was reviewed by Gáspár Jékely and J. Peter Gogarten.
PMCID: PMC3349469  PMID: 22458654
21.  The CMG (CDC45/RecJ, MCM, GINS) complex is a conserved component of the DNA replication system in all archaea and eukaryotes 
Biology Direct  2012;7:7.
In eukaryotes, the CMG (CDC45, MCM, GINS) complex containing the replicative helicase MCM is a key player in DNA replication. Archaeal homologs of the eukaryotic MCM and GINS proteins have been identified but until recently no homolog of the CDC45 protein was known. Two recent developments, namely the discovery of archaeal GINS-associated nuclease (GAN) that belongs to the RecJ family of the DHH hydrolase superfamily and the demonstration of homology between the DHH domains of CDC45 and RecJ, show that at least some Archaea possess a full complement of homologs of the CMG complex subunits. Here we present the results of in-depth phylogenomic analysis of RecJ homologs in archaea.
We confirm and extend the recent hypothesis that CDC45 is the eukaryotic ortholog of the bacterial and archaeal RecJ family nucleases. At least one RecJ homolog was identified in all sequenced archaeal genomes, with the single exception of Caldivirga maquilingensis. These proteins include previously unnoticed remote RecJ homologs with inactivated DHH domain in Thermoproteales. Combined with phylogenetic tree reconstruction of diverse eukaryotic, archaeal and bacterial DHH subfamilies, this analysis yields a complex scenario of RecJ family evolution in Archaea which includes independent inactivation of the nuclease domain in Crenarchaeota and Halobacteria, and loss of this domain in Methanococcales.
The archaeal complex of a CDC45/RecJ homolog, MCM and GINS is homologous and most likely functionally analogous to the eukaryotic CMG complex, and appears to be a key component of the DNA replication machinery in all Archaea. It is inferred that the last common archaeo-eukaryotic ancestor encoded a CMG complex that contained an active nuclease of the RecJ family. The inactivated RecJ homologs in several archaeal lineages most likely are dedicated structural components of replication complexes.
This article was reviewed by Prof. Patrick Forterre, Dr. Stephen John Aves (nominated by Dr. Purificacion Lopez-Garcia) and Prof. Martijn Huynen.
For the full reviews, see the Reviewers' Comments section.
PMCID: PMC3307487  PMID: 22329974
22.  Unification of Cas protein families and a simple scenario for the origin and evolution of CRISPR-Cas systems 
Biology Direct  2011;6:38.
The CRISPR-Cas adaptive immunity systems that are present in most Archaea and many Bacteria function by incorporating fragments of alien genomes into specific genomic loci, transcribing the inserts and using the transcripts as guide RNAs to destroy the genome of the cognate virus or plasmid. This RNA interference-like immune response is mediated by numerous, diverse and rapidly evolving Cas (CRISPR-associated) proteins, several of which form the Cascade complex involved in the processing of CRISPR transcripts and cleavage of the target DNA. Comparative analysis of the Cas protein sequences and structures led to the classification of the CRISPR-Cas systems into three Types (I, II and III).
A detailed comparison of the available sequences and structures of Cas proteins revealed several unnoticed homologous relationships. The Repeat-Associated Mysterious Proteins (RAMPs) containing a distinct form of the RNA Recognition Motif (RRM) domain, which are major components of the CRISPR-Cas systems, were classified into three large groups, Cas5, Cas6 and Cas7. Each of these groups includes many previously uncharacterized proteins now shown to adopt the RAMP structure. Evidence is presented that large subunits contained in most of the CRISPR-Cas systems could be homologous to Cas10 proteins which contain a polymerase-like Palm domain and are predicted to be enzymatically active in Type III CRISPR-Cas systems but inactivated in Type I systems. These findings, the fact that the CRISPR polymerases, RAMPs and Cas2 all contain core RRM domains, and distinct gene arrangements in the three types of CRISPR-Cas systems together provide for a simple scenario for origin and evolution of the CRISPR-Cas machinery. Under this scenario, the CRISPR-Cas system originated in thermophilic Archaea and subsequently spread horizontally among prokaryotes.
Because of the extreme diversity of CRISPR-Cas systems, in-depth sequence and structure comparison continue to reveal unexpected homologous relationship among Cas proteins. Unification of Cas protein families previously considered unrelated provides for improvement in the classification of CRISPR-Cas systems and a reconstruction of their evolution.
Open peer review
This article was reviewed by Malcolm White (nominated by Purficacion Lopez-Garcia), Frank Eisenhaber and Igor Zhulin. For the full reviews, see the Reviewers' Comments section.
PMCID: PMC3150331  PMID: 21756346
23.  How stands the Tree of Life a century and a half after The Origin? 
Biology Direct  2011;6:32.
We examine the Tree of Life (TOL) as an evolutionary hypothesis and a heuristic. The original TOL hypothesis has failed but a new "statistical TOL hypothesis" is promising. The TOL heuristic usefully organizes data without positing fundamental evolutionary truth.
This article was reviewed by W. Ford Doolittle, Nicholas Galtier and Christophe Malaterre.
PMCID: PMC3158114  PMID: 21714936
24.  A late origin of the extant eukaryotic diversity: divergence time estimates using rare genomic changes 
Biology Direct  2011;6:26.
Accurate estimation of the divergence time of the extant eukaryotes is a fundamentally important but extremely difficult problem owing primarily to gross violations of the molecular clock at long evolutionary distances and the lack of appropriate calibration points close to the date of interest. These difficulties are intrinsic to the dating of ancient divergence events and are reflected in the large discrepancies between estimates obtained with different approaches. Estimates of the age of Last Eukaryotic Common Ancestor (LECA) vary approximately twofold, from ~1,100 million years ago (Mya) to ~2,300 Mya.
We applied the genome-wide analysis of rare genomic changes associated with conserved amino acids (RGC_CAs) and used several independent techniques to obtain date estimates for the divergence of the major lineages of eukaryotes with calibration intervals for insects, land plants and vertebrates. The results suggest an early divergence of monocot and dicot plants, approximately 340 Mya, raising the possibility of plant-insect coevolution. The divergence of bilaterian animal phyla is estimated at ~400-700 Mya, a range of dates that is consistent with cladogenesis immediately preceding the Cambrian explosion. The origin of opisthokonts (the supergroup of eukaryotes that includes metazoa and fungi) is estimated at ~700-1,000 Mya, and the age of LECA at ~1,000-1,300 Mya. We separately analyzed the red algal calibration interval which is based on single fossil. This analysis produced time estimates that were systematically older compared to the other estimates. Nevertheless, the majority of the estimates for the age of the LECA using the red algal data fell within the 1,200-1,400 Mya interval.
The inference of a "young LECA" is compatible with the latest of previously estimated dates and has substantial biological implications. If these estimates are valid, the approximately 1 to 1.4 billion years of evolution of eukaryotes that is open to comparative-genomic study probably was preceded by hundreds of millions years of evolution that might have included extinct diversity inaccessible to comparative approaches.
This article was reviewed by William Martin, Herve Philippe (nominated by I. King Jordan), and Romain Derelle.
PMCID: PMC3125394  PMID: 21595937
bilateria; opisthokonts; angiosperms; last eukaryotic common ancestor; molecular dating
25.  The common ancestry of life 
Biology Direct  2010;5:64.
It is common belief that all cellular life forms on earth have a common origin. This view is supported by the universality of the genetic code and the universal conservation of multiple genes, particularly those that encode key components of the translation system. A remarkable recent study claims to provide a formal, homology independent test of the Universal Common Ancestry hypothesis by comparing the ability of a common-ancestry model and a multiple-ancestry model to predict sequences of universally conserved proteins.
We devised a computational experiment on a concatenated alignment of universally conserved proteins which shows that the purported demonstration of the universal common ancestry is a trivial consequence of significant sequence similarity between the analyzed proteins. The nature and origin of this similarity are irrelevant for the prediction of "common ancestry" of by the model-comparison approach. Thus, homology (common origin) of the compared proteins remains an inference from sequence similarity rather than an independent property demonstrated by the likelihood analysis.
A formal demonstration of the Universal Common Ancestry hypothesis has not been achieved and is unlikely to be feasible in principle. Nevertheless, the evidence in support of this hypothesis provided by comparative genomics is overwhelming.
this article was reviewed by William Martin, Ivan Iossifov (nominated by Andrey Rzhetsky) and Arcady Mushegian. For the complete reviews, see the Reviewers' Report section.
PMCID: PMC2993666  PMID: 21087490

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