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Genome Biol Evol. 2018 Jan 1;10(1):108-124. doi: 10.1093/gbe/evx270.

Genetic Competence Drives Genome Diversity in Bacillus subtilis.

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Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, Oeiras, Portugal.
Nova Medical School, Faculdade de Ciências Médicas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal.
DSM Nutritional Products, Ltd., 60 Westview street, Lexington MA, USA.
Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica, Oeiras, Portugal.
Ophiomics-Precision Medicine, Lisbon, Portugal.


Prokaryote genomes are the result of a dynamic flux of genes, with increases achieved via horizontal gene transfer and reductions occurring through gene loss. The ecological and selective forces that drive this genomic flexibility vary across species. Bacillus subtilis is a naturally competent bacterium that occupies various environments, including plant-associated, soil, and marine niches, and the gut of both invertebrates and vertebrates. Here, we quantify the genomic diversity of B. subtilis and infer the genome dynamics that explain the high genetic and phenotypic diversity observed. Phylogenomic and comparative genomic analyses of 42 B. subtilis genomes uncover a remarkable genome diversity that translates into a core genome of 1,659 genes and an asymptotic pangenome growth rate of 57 new genes per new genome added. This diversity is due to a large proportion of low-frequency genes that are acquired from closely related species. We find no gene-loss bias among wild isolates, which explains why the cloud genome, 43% of the species pangenome, represents only a small proportion of each genome. We show that B. subtilis can acquire xenologous copies of core genes that propagate laterally among strains within a niche. While not excluding the contributions of other mechanisms, our results strongly suggest a process of gene acquisition that is largely driven by competence, where the long-term maintenance of acquired genes depends on local and global fitness effects. This competence-driven genomic diversity provides B. subtilis with its generalist character, enabling it to occupy a wide range of ecological niches and cycle through them.


Bacillus subtilis; bacterial genome evolution; comparative genomics; genetic competence; lateral gene transfer; pangenome

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