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Front Microbiol. 2015 Jan 6;5:742. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2014.00742. eCollection 2014.

Evolution of small prokaryotic genomes.

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Departamento de Ingeniería Genética, Cinvestav Unidad Irapuato Irapuato, Mexico.
Institut Cavanilles de Biodiversitat i Biologia Evolutiva, Universitat de Valencia Valencia, Spain.
Centro de Ciencias Genómicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México Cuernavaca, Mexico.


As revealed by genome sequencing, the biology of prokaryotes with reduced genomes is strikingly diverse. These include free-living prokaryotes with ∼800 genes as well as endosymbiotic bacteria with as few as ∼140 genes. Comparative genomics is revealing the evolutionary mechanisms that led to these small genomes. In the case of free-living prokaryotes, natural selection directly favored genome reduction, while in the case of endosymbiotic prokaryotes neutral processes played a more prominent role. However, new experimental data suggest that selective processes may be at operation as well for endosymbiotic prokaryotes at least during the first stages of genome reduction. Endosymbiotic prokaryotes have evolved diverse strategies for living with reduced gene sets inside a host-defined medium. These include utilization of host-encoded functions (some of them coded by genes acquired by gene transfer from the endosymbiont and/or other bacteria); metabolic complementation between co-symbionts; and forming consortiums with other bacteria within the host. Recent genome sequencing projects of intracellular mutualistic bacteria showed that previously believed universal evolutionary trends like reduced G+C content and conservation of genome synteny are not always present in highly reduced genomes. Finally, the simplified molecular machinery of some of these organisms with small genomes may be used to aid in the design of artificial minimal cells. Here we review recent genomic discoveries of the biology of prokaryotes endowed with small gene sets and discuss the evolutionary mechanisms that have been proposed to explain their peculiar nature.


Black Queen Hypothesis; Muller’s ratchet; endosymbiosis; minimal genome size; reductive genome evolution; robustness-based selective reduction; streamlining evolution; symbionelle

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