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Instill Science / Novel integrative elements and genomic plasticity in ocean ecosystems
January 17, 2023atif-khan
Novel integrative elements and genomic plasticity in ocean
Horizontal gene transfer Genome plasticity

Horizontal gene transfer accelerates microbial evolution. The marine picocyanobacterium Prochlorococcus exhibits high genomic plasticity, yet the underlying mechanisms are elusive. Here, we report a novel family of DNA transposons—“tycheposons”—some of which are viral satellites while others carry cargo, such as nutrient-acquisition genes, which shape the genetic variability in this globally abundant genus. Tycheposons share distinctive mobile-lifecycle-linked hallmark genes, including a deep-branching site-specific tyrosine recombinase. Their excision and integration at tRNA genes appear to drive the remodeling of genomic islands—key reservoirs for flexible genes in bacteria. In a selection experiment, tycheposons harboring a nitrate assimilation cassette were dynamically gained and lost, thereby promoting chromosomal rearrangements and host adaptation. Vesicles and phage particles harvested from seawater are enriched in tycheposons, providing a means for their dispersal in the wild. Similar elements are found in microbes co-occurring with Prochlorococcus, suggesting a common mechanism for microbial diversification in the vast oligotrophic oceans.

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