Phytoplasmas are obligate symbionts of plants and insects that are responsible for significant yield losses in diverse crops. Genome sequencing has revealed that many phytoplasma genomes appear to contain repeated genes organized in units of approximately 20 kb. These 'potential mobile units' (PMUs) resemble composite replicative transposons. PMUs contain several genes for recombination and some also contain putative 'virulence genes'. Genome alignments suggest that PMUs are involved in phytoplasma genome instability and recombination. In this edition of Molecular Microbiology, Hogenhout and colleagues report that one PMU from the aster yellows phytoplasma strain Witches' Broom (AY-WB) can exist as both a linear PMU within the chromosome and as an extrachromosomal circular form. The copy number of the circular form is much higher in the insect vector compared with the plant, and expression levels of genes present on the PMU are also higher in the insect. These observations suggest not only that this PMU could be a mobile element, but that it could also be involved in a phase-variation mechanism that allows the phytoplasma to adapt to its different hosts.
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