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Background: The genomes of bacteria and archaea evolve by extensive loss and gain of genes which, for any group of related prokaryotic genomes, result in the formation of a pangenome with the universal, asymmetrical U-shaped distribution of gene commonality. However, the evolutionary factors that define the specific shape of this distribution are not thoroughly understood. Results: We investigate the fit of simple models of genome evolution to the empirically observed gene commonality distributions and genome intersections for 33 groups of closely related bacterial genomes. A model with an infinite external gene pool available for gene acquisition and constant genome size (IGP-CGS model), and two gene turnover rates, one for slow- and the other one for fast-evolving genes, allows two approaches to estimate the parameters for gene content dynamics. One is by fitting the model prediction to the distribution of the number of genes shared by precisely k genomes (gene commonality distribution) and another by analyzing the distribution of the number of genes common for k genome sets (k-cores). Both approaches produce a comparable overall quality of fit, although the former significantly overestimates the number of the universally conserved genes, while the latter overestimates the number of singletons. We further explore the effect of dropping each of the assumptions of the IGP-CGS model on the fit to the gene commonality distributions and show that models with either a finite gene pool or unequal rates of gene loss and gain (greater gene loss rate) eliminate the overestimate of the number of singletons or the core genome size. Conclusions: We examine the assumptions that are usually adopted for modeling the evolution of the U-shaped gene commonality distributions in prokaryote genomes, namely, those of infinitely many genes and constant genome size. The combined analysis of genome intersections and gene commonality suggests that at least one of these assumptions is invalid. The violation of both these assumptions reflects the limited ability of prokaryotes to gain new genes. This limitation seems to stem, at least partly, from the horizontal gene transfer barrier, i.e., the cost of accommodation of foreign genes by prokaryotes. Further development of models taking into account the complexity of microbial evolution is necessary for an improved understanding of the evolution of prokaryotes.
Sela, I., Wolf, Y. I., & Koonin, E. V. (2021). Assessment of assumptions underlying models of prokaryotic pangenome evolution. BMC Biology, 19(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12915-021-00960-2