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PLoS One. 2008;3(10):e3450. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003450. Epub 2008 Oct 20.

Impact of orthologous gene replacement on the circuitry governing pilus gene transcription in streptococci.

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Department of Microbiology and Immunology, New York Medical College, Valhalla, New York, United States of America.



The evolutionary history of several genes of the bacterial pathogen Streptococcus pyogenes strongly suggests an origin in another species, acquired via replacement of the counterpart gene (ortholog) following a recombination event. An example of orthologous gene replacement is provided by the nra/rofA locus, which encodes a key regulator of pilus gene transcription. Of biological importance is the previous finding that the presence of the nra- and rofA-lineage alleles, which are approximately 35% divergent, correlates strongly with genetic markers for streptococcal infection at different tissue sites in the human host (skin, throat).


In this report, the impact of orthologous gene replacement targeting the nra/rofA locus is experimentally addressed. Replacement of the native nra-lineage allele with a rofA-lineage allele, plus their respective upstream regions, preserved the polarity of Nra effects on pilus gene transcription (i.e., activation) in the skin strain Alab49. Increased pilus gene transcription in the rofA chimera correlated with a higher rate of bacterial growth at the skin. The transcriptional regulator MsmR, which represses nra and pilus gene transcription in the Alab49 parent strain, has a slight activating effect on pilus gene expression in the rofA chimera construct.


Data show that exchange of orthologous forms of a regulatory gene is stable and robust, and pathogenicity is preserved. Yet, new phenotypes may also be introduced by altering the circuitry within a complex transcriptional regulatory network. It is proposed that orthologous gene replacement via interspecies exchange is an important mechanism in the evolution of highly recombining bacteria such as S. pyogenes.

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