Background: The pentatricopeptide repeat (PPR) is a degenerate 35 amino acid motif that occurs in multiple tandem copies in members of a recently recognized eukaryotic gene family. Most analyzed eukaryotic genomes contain only a small number of PPR genes, but in plants the family is greatly expanded. The factors that underlie the expansion of this gene family in plants are not as yet understood.
Results: We show that the location of PPR genes is highly variable in comparisons between orthologous, closely related, and otherwise co-linear chromosomal regions of the Brassica rapa or radish and Arabidopsis thaliana. This observation also pertains to paralogous duplicated segments of the genomes of Arabidopsis thaliana and Brassica rapa. In addition, we show that PPR genes that seem closely linearly aligned in these comparisons are not generally found to be closely related to one another at the nucleotide and amino acid sequence level. We observe a relatively high level of non-synonomous vs synonomous changes among a group tandemly repeated radish PPR genes, suggesting that these, and possibly other PPR genes, are subject to diversifying selection. We also show that a duplicated region of the Arabidopsis genome possesses a relatively high density of PPR genes showing high similarity to restorers of fertility of cytoplasmic male sterile (CMS) systems of petunia, radish and rice. The PPR genes in these regions, together with the restorer genes, are more highly similar to one another, in sequence as well as in structure, than to other PPR genes, even within the same sub-family.
Conclusion: Our results suggest are consistent with a model in which at least some PPR genes undergo a "birth and death" process that involves transposition to unrelated chromosomal sites. PPR genes hold certain features in common with disease resistance genes (R genes), and their "nomadic" character suggests that their evolutionary expansion in plants may have involved novel molecular processes and selective pressures.