The Dynamics and Time Scale of Ongoing Genomic Erosion in Symbiotic Bacteria

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Science  16 Jan 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5912, pp. 379-382
DOI: 10.1126/science.1167140

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Among cellular organisms, symbiotic bacteria provide the extreme examples of genome degradation and reduction. However, only isolated snapshots of eroding symbiont genomes have previously been available. We documented the dynamics of symbiont genome evolution by sequencing seven strains of Buchnera aphidicola from pea aphid hosts. We estimated a spontaneous mutation rate of at least 4 × 10–9 substitutions per site per replication, which is more than 10 times as high as the rates previously estimated for any bacteria. We observed a high rate of small insertions and deletions associated with abundant DNA homopolymers, and occasional larger deletions. Although purifying selection eliminates many mutations, some persist, resulting in ongoing loss of genes and DNA from this already tiny genome. Our results provide a general model for the stepwise process leading to genome reduction.

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