Examination of Prokaryotic Multipartite Genome Evolution through Experimental Genome Reduction
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Many bacteria carry two or more chromosome-like replicons. This occurs in pathogens such as Vibrio cholerea and Brucella abortis as well as in many N2-fixing plant symbionts including all isolates of the alfalfa root-nodule bacteria Sinorhizobium meliloti. Understanding the evolution and role of this multipartite genome organization will provide significant insight into these important organisms; yet this knowledge remains incomplete, in part, because technical challenges of large-scale genome manipulations have limited experimental analyses. The distinct evolutionary histories and characteristics of the three replicons that constitute the S. meliloti genome (the chromosome (3.65 Mb), pSymA megaplasmid (1.35 Mb), and pSymB chromid (1.68 Mb)) makes this a good model to examine this topic. We transferred essential genes from pSymB into the chromosome, and constructed strains that lack pSymB as well as both pSymA and pSymB. This is the largest reduction (45.4%, 3.04 megabases, 2866 genes) of a prokaryotic genome to date and the first removal of an essential chromid. Strikingly, strains lacking pSymA and pSymB (ΔpSymAB) lost the ability to utilize 55 of 74 carbon sources and various sources of nitrogen, phosphorous and sulfur, yet the ΔpSymAB strain grew well in minimal salts media and in sterile soil. This suggests that the core chromosome is sufficient for growth in a bulk soil environment and that the pSymA and pSymB replicons carry genes with more specialized functions such as growth in the rhizosphere and interaction with the plant. These experimental data support a generalized evolutionary model, in which non-chromosomal replicons primarily carry genes with more specialized functions. These large secondary replicons increase the organism's niche range, which offsets their metabolic burden on the cell (e.g. pSymA). Subsequent co-evolution with the chromosome then leads to the formation of a chromid through the acquisition of functions core to all niches (e.g. pSymB).
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