Conditions for the evolution of gene clusters in bacterial genomes


Genes encoding proteins in a common pathway are often found near each other along bacterial chromosomes. Several explanations have been proposed to account for the evolution of these structures. For instance, natural selection may directly favour gene clusters through a variety of mechanisms, such as increased efficiency of coregulation. An alternative and controversial hypothesis is the selfish operon model, which asserts that clustered arrangements of genes are more easily transferred to other species, thus improving the prospects for survival of the cluster. According to another hypothesis (the persistence model), genes that are in close proximity are less likely to be disrupted by deletions. Here we develop computational models to study the conditions under which gene clusters can evolve and persist. First, we examine the selfish operon model by re-implementing the simulation and running it under a wide range of conditions. Second, we introduce and study a Moran process in which there is natural selection for gene clustering and rearrangement occurs by genome inversion events. Finally, we develop and study a model that includes selection and inversion, which tracks the occurrence and fixation of rearrangements. Surprisingly, gene clusters fail to evolve under a wide range of conditions. Factors that promote the evolution of gene clusters include a low number of genes in the pathway, a high population size, and in the case of the selfish operon model, a high horizontal transfer rate. The computational analysis here has shown that the evolution of gene clusters can occur under both direct and indirect selection as long as certain conditions hold. Under these conditions the selfish operon model is still viable as an explanation for the evolution of gene clusters.

PLoS computational biology