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FEMS Microbiol Rev. 2000 Jan;24(1):1-7.

Genetic variation: molecular mechanisms and impact on microbial evolution.

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Biozentrum, University of Basel, Klingelbergstrasse 70, CH-4056, Basel, Switzerland.


On the basis of established knowledge of microbial genetics one can distinguish three major natural strategies in the spontaneous generation of genetic variations in bacteria. These strategies are: (1) small local changes in the nucleotide sequence of the genome, (2) intragenomic reshuffling of segments of genomic sequences and (3) the acquisition of DNA sequences from another organism. The three general strategies differ in the quality of their contribution to microbial evolution. Besides a number of non-genetic factors, various specific gene products are involved in the generation of genetic variation and in the modulation of the frequency of genetic variation. The underlying genes are called evolution genes. They act for the benefit of the biological evolution of populations as opposed to the action of housekeeping genes and accessory genes which are for the benefit of individuals. Examples of evolution genes acting as variation generators are found in the transposition of mobile genetic elements and in so-called site-specific recombination systems. DNA repair systems and restriction-modification systems are examples of modulators of the frequency of genetic variation. The involvement of bacterial viruses and of plasmids in DNA reshuffling and in horizontal gene transfer is a hint for their evolutionary functions. Evolution genes are thought to undergo biological evolution themselves, but natural selection for their functions is indirect, at the level of populations, and is called second-order selection. In spite of an involvement of gene products in the generation of genetic variations, evolution genes do not programmatically direct evolution towards a specific goal. Rather, a steady interplay between natural selection and mixed populations of genetic variants gives microbial evolution its direction.

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