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Mol Biol Evol. 2011 Nov;28(11):3213-23. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msr239.

The rhizome of life: the sympatric Rickettsia felis paradigm demonstrates the random transfer of DNA sequences.

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Unité de Recherche en Maladies Infectieuses et Tropicales Emergentes, CNRS-IRD UMR6236-198, Université de la Méditerranée, Faculté de Médecine, Marseille, France.


The intracellular flea symbiont, Rickettsia felis, may meet other organisms intracellularly such as R. typhi. We used a single-gene phylogenetic approach of the 1375 R. felis genes to look for horizontal transfers that occurred as a result of the bacterial promiscuity with other organisms. Our results showed that besides genes that are linked to the Spotted Fever Group, 165 genes have a different history and are linked to other Rickettsia such as R. bellii (107 genes), R. typhi (15 genes), or to other bacteria such as Legionella sp. and Francisella sp. or to eukaryotes. Among these genes, we identified 73 individual genes and 34 spatial clusters containing 2-4 adjacent genes, a total of 79 genes, with evidence of en bloc transfer. We described 13 chimeric genes resulting from gene recombination with sympatric R. typhi. The transferred DNA sequences present different sizes and functions, suggesting that the horizontal transfer in R. felis is random and neutral within its specific host. Our study shows that the strict intracellular bacteria R. felis exhibits a mosaic genome. We therefore developed a new representation for the evolutionary history of R. felis showing its different putative ancestors in the form of a rhizome.

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