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Res Microbiol. 2003 May;154(4):259-67.

The diversity and evolution of the T4-type bacteriophages.

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Laboratoire de Microbiologie et Génétique Moléculaire du CNRS, UMR 5100, 118 Route de Narbonne, 31062 Cedex, Toulouse, France.


Recent studies suggest that viruses are the most numerous entities in the biosphere; bacteriophages, the viruses that infect Eubacteria and Archaea, constitute a substantial fraction of this population. In spite of their ubiquity, the vast majority of phages in the environment have never been studied and nothing is known about them. For the last 10 years our research has focused on an extremely widespread group of phages, the T4-type. It has now become evident that phage T4 has a myriad of relatives in nature that differ significantly in their host range. The genomes of all these phages have homology to the T4 genes that determine virion morphology. Although phylogenetically related, these T4-type phages can be subdivided into four groups that are increasingly distant from T4: the T-evens, the pseudo T-evens, the schizo T-evens and the exo T-evens. Genomic comparisons between the various T4-type phages and T4 indicate that these genomes share homology not only for virion structural components but also for most of the essential genes involved in the T4 life cycle. This suggests that horizontal transmission of the genetic information may have played a less general role in the evolution of these phages than has been supposed. Nevertheless, we have identified several regions of the T4-type genome, such as the segment containing the tail fiber genes that exhibit evidence of extensive modular shuffling during evolution. The T4-type genomes appear to be a mosaic containing a large and fixed group of essential genes as well as highly variable set of non-essential genes. These non-essential genes are probably important for the adaptation of these phages to their particular life-style. Furthermore, swapping autonomous domains within the essential proteins may slightly modify their function(s) and contribute to the adaptive ability of the T4-type phage family. Regulatory sequences also display considerable evolutionary plasticity and this too may facilitate the adaptation of phage gene expression to new environments and stresses.

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