This is a story about two cultures; the old biologists who grew up with the 'phage group and bacterial genetics, and the younger biologists who didn't.
It's also a story about science journalism and the reporting of science in the 21st century.
We've known about plasmids in bacteria for a very long time. Plasmids are small circular DNA molecules that carry a number of genes, such as those for antibiotic resistance, or sex. Some of them are present in multiple copies while others are present in only a single copy. In the case of single-copy plasmids, their replication is coupled to that of the chromosome and the daughter plasmids segregate to the daughter cells just like the newly replicated chromosomes do.
Genes can hop from chromosomes to plasmids and back again. This phenomenon was discovered in the 1950's by Jacob and Adelberg (1959). Several well-known plasmids carrying certain chromosomal genes were studied, including a famous one known as F-lac—an F plasmid containing the lac operon.
By the time the first E. coli Bible was published in 1987, there were dozens and dozens of examples of gene transfer between chromosomes and plasmids (Holloway and Low, 1987).
During the 1970s and 80s, the DNA contents of many difference species of bacteria were published. It soon became apparent that certain classes of bacteria (e.g. Rhizobiaceae) contained large plasmids called megaplasmids. Sometimes it was difficult to tell the difference between a plasmid and a chromosome (bacterial chromosomes are usually circular).
As a general rule, plasmids were dispensable. The bacteria could be "cured" of a plasmid and still survive. When the plasmid acquired essential genes, as they did from time to time, they became chromosomes. Some species of bacteria had two or more chromosomes. It was part of general knowledge that plasmids could evolve into chromosomes as described in a 1998 review by Moreno.
Animal intracellular Proteobacteria of the alpha subclass without plasmids and containing one or more chromosomes are phylogenetically entwined with opportunistic, plant-associated, chemoautotrophic and photosynthetic alpha Proteobacteria possessing one or more chromosomes and plasmids. Local variations in open environments, such as soil, water, manure, gut systems and the external surfaces of plants and animals, may have selected alpha Proteobacteria with extensive metabolic alternatives, broad genetic diversity, and more flexible and larger genomes with ability for horizontal gene flux. On the contrary, the constant and isolated animal cellular milieu selected heterotrophic alpha Proteobacteria with smaller genomes without plasmids and reduced genetic diversity as compared to their plant-associated and phototrophic relatives. The characteristics and genome sizes in the extant species suggest that a second chromosome could have evolved from megaplasmids which acquired housekeeping genes. Consequently, the genomes of the animal cell-associated Proteobacteria evolved through reductions of the larger genomes of chemoautotrophic ancestors and became rich in adenosine and thymidine, as compared to the genomes of their ancestors. Genome organisation and phylogenetic ancestor-descendent relationships between extant bacteria of closely related genera and within the same monophyletic genus and species suggest that some strains have undergone transition from two chromosomes to a single replicon. It is proposed that as long as the essential information is correctly expressed, the presence of one or more chromosomes within the same genus or species is the result of contingency. Genetic drift in clonal bacteria, such as animal cell-associated alpha Proteobacteria, would depend almost exclusively on mutation and internal genetic rearrangement processes. Alternatively, genomic variations in reticulate bacteria, such as many intestinal and plant cell-associated Proteobacteria, will depend not only on these processes, but also on their genetic interactions with other bacterial strains.Given this context, I was interested in a recent press release: Evolutionary origin of bacterial chromosomes revealed. "Hmmm," I thought., "I wonder what new mechanism has been discovered?"
Imagine my surprise to read ...
Most bacteria have only one chromosome. The Rhizobiaceae is an unusual bacterial family in that all of its members have either two chromosomes or one chromosome and very large plasmids. Until this study, it was not clear how such multichromosomal architectures had evolved.That's not new. The idea that large megaplasmids in Rhizobiaceae could become plasmids by acquiring essential genes has been around for three decades, at least. Surely these workers known their history? The press release must be an exaggeration of what's in the paper.
João Setubal, associate professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, commented: "Thanks to the efforts of the Agrobacterium Genome Sequence Consortium and the wider research community, we have sufficient sequence data available from different bacterial species to allow the inference of a general model for bacterial genome evolution. It appears that the transfer of genes from chromosomes to large plasmids mediates second chromosome formation."
So I looked up the paper (Slater et al., 2009). These workers sequenced the genomes of a number of related bacterial species containing chromosomes and plasmids. They announce the "surprising" discovery that genes can transfer between chromosomes and plasmids.
While it has long been known that gene transfer can occur between organisms, the picture that emerges from our study shows a group characterized by composite genomes in which genes of all classes are not only migrating between organisms, but also intracellularly among chromosomal and plasmid replicons.It sounds like they never heard of F-lac or any of the other F′ or R′ plasmids. It sounds like they are completely unaware to the fact that transfer of genes from chromosomes to plasmids is an old established fact.
The authors propose a "general model for bacterial genome evolution" in which plasmids evolve into chromosomes.
This is not an isolated phenomenon. There seem to be lots of cases where today's scientists are unaware of the history of their field. A consequence of this ignorance is that the wheel is being constantly reinvented, with all the associated hype of a modern breakthrough.
Another example is the recent "discovery" of regulatory RNAs. Bacterial and 'phage examples have been known for forty years.
Why is this happening? Why do reviewers let it pass?
[Image Credit: Jessica Snyder Sachs]
Holloway, B. and Low, K.B. (1987) F-Prime and R-Prome Factors. in Escherichia coli and Salmonella typhimurium: Cellular and Molecular Biology. F.C. Neidhardt ed. vol.2.
Jacob, F. and Adelberg, E.A. (1959) Transfer of Genetic Characters by Incorporation in the Sex Factor of Escherichia coli. Comptes Rendus 249:189-191.
Moreno, E. (1998) Genome evolution within the alpha Proteobacteria: why do some bacteria not possess plasmids and others exhibit more than one different chromosome? FEMS Microbiol 22(4):255-275. [PubMed]
Slater, S.C., Goldman, B.S., Goodner, B., Setubal, J.C., Farrand, S.K., Nester, E.W., Burr, T.J., Banta, L., Dickerman, A.W., Paulsen, I., Otten, L., Suen, G., Welch, R., Almeida, N.F., Arnold, F., Burton, O.T., Du, Z., Ewing, A., Godsy, E., Heisel, S., Houmiel, K.L., Jhaveri, J., Lu, J., Miller, N.M., Norton, S., Chen, Q., Phoolcharoen, W., Ohlin, V., Ondrusek, D., Pride, N., Stricklin, S.L., Sun, J., Wheeler, C,, Wilson, L,, Zhu, H., and Wood, D.W. (2009) Genome Sequences of Three Agrobacterium Biovars Help Elucidate the Evolution of Multi-Chromosome Genomes in Bacteria. J. Bacteriol. 2009 Feb 27. [Epub ahead of print] [PubMed] [DOI: 10.1128/JB.01779-08]