Guy L, Nystedt B, Toft C, Zaremba-Niedzwiedzka K, Berglund EC, Granberg F, Näslund K, Eriksson AS, Andersson SG
PLoS Genet. 9 (3) e1003393 [2013-03-00; online 2013-03-28]
Gene transfer agents (GTAs) randomly transfer short fragments of a bacterial genome. A novel putative GTA was recently discovered in the mouse-infecting bacterium Bartonella grahamii. Although GTAs are widespread in phylogenetically diverse bacteria, their role in evolution is largely unknown. Here, we present a comparative analysis of 16 Bartonella genomes ranging from 1.4 to 2.6 Mb in size, including six novel genomes from Bartonella isolated from a cow, two moose, two dogs, and a kangaroo. A phylogenetic tree inferred from 428 orthologous core genes indicates that the deadly human pathogen B. bacilliformis is related to the ruminant-adapted clade, rather than being the earliest diverging species in the genus as previously thought. A gene flux analysis identified 12 genes for a GTA and a phage-derived origin of replication as the most conserved innovations. These are located in a region of a few hundred kb that also contains 8 insertions of gene clusters for type III, IV, and V secretion systems, and genes for putatively secreted molecules such as cholera-like toxins. The phylogenies indicate a recent transfer of seven genes in the virB gene cluster for a type IV secretion system from a cat-adapted B. henselae to a dog-adapted B. vinsonii strain. We show that the B. henselae GTA is functional and can transfer genes in vitro. We suggest that the maintenance of the GTA is driven by selection to increase the likelihood of horizontal gene transfer and argue that this process is beneficial at the population level, by facilitating adaptive evolution of the host-adaptation systems and thereby expansion of the host range size. The process counters gene loss and forces all cells to contribute to the production of the GTA and the secreted molecules. The results advance our understanding of the role that GTAs play for the evolution of bacterial genomes.