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BMC Evol Biol. 2008 Jan 23;8:18. doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-8-18.

IS4 family goes genomic.

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  • 1Laboratoire de microbiologie alimentaire et environnementale, Université catholique de Louvain, Croix du Sud 2/12, B-1348 Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium.



Insertion sequences (ISs) are small, mobile DNA entities able to expand in prokaryotic genomes and trigger important rearrangements. To understand their role in evolution, accurate IS taxonomy is essential. The IS4 family is composed of approximately 70 elements and, like some other families, displays extremely elevated levels of internal divergence impeding its classification. The increasing availability of complete genome sequences provides a valuable source for the discovery of additional IS4 elements. In this study, this genomic database was used to update the structural and functional definition of the IS4 family.


A total of 227 IS4-related sequences were collected among more than 500 sequenced bacterial and archaeal genomes, representing more than a three fold increase of the initial inventory. A clear division into seven coherent subgroups was discovered as well as three emerging families, which displayed distinct structural and functional properties. The IS4 family was sporadically present in 17 % of analyzed genomes, with most of them displaying single or a small number of IS4 elements. Significant expansions were detected only in some pathogens as well as among certain extremophiles, suggesting the probable involvement of some elements in bacterial and archaeal adaptation and/or evolution. Finally, it should be noted that some IS4 subgroups and two emerging families occurred preferentially in specific phyla or exclusively inside a specific genus.


The present taxonomic update of IS4 and emerging families will facilitate the classification of future elements as they arise from ongoing genome sequencing. Their narrow genomic impact and the existence of both IS-poor and IS-rich thriving prokaryotes suggested that these families, and probably ISs in general, are occasionally used as a tool for genome flexibility and evolution, rather than just representing self sustaining DNA entities.

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