Background: Whole-genome comparisons can provide great insight into many aspects of biology. Until recently, however, comparisons were mainly possible only between distantly related species. Complete genome sequences are now becoming available from multiple sets of closely related strains or species.
Results: By comparing the recently completed genome sequences of Vibrio cholerae, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Mycobacterium tuberculosis to those of closely related species - Escherichia coli, Streptococcus pyogenes and Mycobacterium leprae, respectively - we have identified an unusual and previously unobserved feature of bacterial genome structure. Scatterplots of the conserved sequences (both DNA and protein) between each pair of species produce a distinct X-shaped pattern, which we call an X-alignment. The key feature of these alignments is that they have symmetry around the replication origin and terminus; that is, the distance of a particular conserved feature (DNA or protein) from the replication origin (or terminus) is conserved between closely related pairs of species. Statistically significant X-alignments are also found within some genomes, indicating that there is symmetry about the replication origin for paralogous features as well.
Conclusions: The most likely mechanism of generation of X-alignments involves large chromosomal inversions that reverse the genomic sequence symmetrically around the origin of replication. The finding of these X-alignments between many pairs of species suggests that chromosomal inversions around the origin are a common feature of bacterial genome evolution.