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Annu Rev Microbiol. 2001;55:561-90.

Recombination and the population structures of bacterial pathogens.

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Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY, United Kingdom.


The population structures of bacterial species are complex and often controversial. To a large extent, this is due to uncertainty about the frequency and impact of recombination in bacteria. The existence of clones within bacterial populations, and of linkage disequilibrium between alleles at different loci, is often cited as evidence for low rates of recombination. However, clones and linkage disequilibrium are almost inevitable in species that divide by binary fission and can be present in populations where recombination is frequent. In recent years, it has become possible to directly compare rates of recombination in different species. These studies indicate that in many bacterial species, including Neisseria meningitidis, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and Staphylococcus aureus, evolutionary change at neutral (housekeeping) loci is more likely to occur by recombination than mutation and can result in the elimination of any deep-rooted phylogenetic signal. In such species, the long-term evolution of the population is dominated by recombination, but this does not occur at a sufficiently high frequency to prevent the emergence of adaptive clones, although these are relatively short-lived and rapidly diversify.

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