A comparative analysis of the predicted protein sequences encoded in the complete genomes of Borrelia burgdorferi and Treponema pallidum provides a number of insights into evolutionary trends and adaptive strategies of the two spirochetes. A measure of orthologous relationships between gene sets, termed the orthology coefficient (OC), was developed. The overall OC value for the gene sets of the two spirochetes is about 0.43, which means that less than one-half of the genes show readily detectable orthologous relationships. This emphasizes significant divergence between the two spirochetes, apparently driven by different biological niches. Different functional categories of proteins as well as different protein families show a broad distribution of OC values, from near 1 (a perfect, one-to-one correspondence) to near 0. The proteins involved in core biological functions, such as genome replication and expression, typically show high OC values. In contrast, marked variability is seen among proteins that are involved in specific processes, such as nutrient transport, metabolism, gene-specific transcription regulation, signal transduction, and host response. Differences in the gene complements encoded in the two spirochete genomes suggest active adaptive evolution for their distinct niches. Comparative analysis of the spirochete genomes produced evidence of gene exchanges with other bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotic hosts that seem to have occurred at different points in the evolution of the spirochetes. Examples are presented of the use of sequence profile analysis to predict proteins that are likely to play a role in pathogenesis, including secreted proteins that contain specific protein-protein interaction domains, such as von Willebrand A, YWTD, TPR, and PR1, some of which hitherto have been reported only in eukaryotes. We tentatively reconstruct the likely evolutionary process that has led to the divergence of the two spirochete lineages; this reconstruction seems to point to an ancestral state resembling the symbiotic spirochetes found in insect guts.
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