We present models describing the acquisition and deletion of novel sequences in populations of microorganisms. We infer that most novel sequences are neutral. Thus, sequence duplications and gene transfer between organisms sharing the same environment are rarely expected to generate adaptive functions. Two classes of models are considered: (1) a homogeneous population with constant size, and (2) an island model in which the population is subdivided into patches that are in contact through slow migration. Distributions of gene frequencies are derived in a Moran model with overlapping generations. We find that novel, neutral or near-neutral coding sequences in microorganisms will not be fixed globally because they offer large target sizes for mutations and because the populations are so large. At most, such genes may have a transient presence in only a small fraction of the population. Consequently, a microbial population is expected to have a very large diversity of transient neutral gene content. Only sequences that are under strong selection, globally or in individual patches, can be expected to persist. We suggest that genome size is maintained in microorganisms by a quasi-steady state mechanism in which random fluctuations in the effective acquisition and deletion rates result in genome sizes that vary from patch to patch. We assign the genomic identity of a global population to those genes that are required for the participation of patches in the genetic sweeps that maintain the genomic coherence of the population. In contrast, we stress the influence of sequence loss on the isolation and the divergence (speciation) of novel patches from a global population.
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