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Ciba Found Symp. 1984;102:233-45.

Accessory DNAs in the bacterial gene pool: playground for coevolution.


Chemostat studies of bacteria that harbour the prokaryotic transposable elements Tn5 and Tn10 and the temperate phages lambda, Mu, P1 and P2 have shown that these accessory DNA elements confer a selective advantage on their hosts. We propose that similar selective effects provided the initial impetus for the evolution of nascent accessory DNA elements in primitive bacterial populations. In subsequent evolution the elements acquired or perfected the 'selfish' characteristics of over-replication and horizontal transmission. Such selfish traits led to the dissemination of accessory DNAs among commensal strains, species and genera, genetically interconnecting them to create a 'commonwealth' of species that potentially share a common gene pool. The involvement of accessory DNAs in genetic exchange provides selection at the population level for refinement and diversification of the elements and for regulation of their replication, transposition and transfer among cells. The diversity of intracellular environments encountered by the elements imposes constraints on their evolution while at the same time altering the selection pressures operating on conventional chromosomal genes. This process of coevolution of accessory DNAs with the genomes of their diverse hosts has led to a unique population structure and mechanism of genetic exchange among bacteria, which constitutes the most effective adaptive strategy yet devised by selection.

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