Background: DNA viruses have a wide range of genome sizes (5 kb up to 1.2 Mb, compared to 0.16 Mb to 1.5 Mb for obligate parasitic bacteria) that do not correlate with their virulence or the taxonomic distribution of their hosts. The reasons for such large variation are unclear. According to the traditional view of viruses as gifted "gene pickpockets", large viral genome sizes could originate from numerous gene acquisitions from their hosts. We investigated this hypothesis by studying 67 large DNA viruses with genome sizes larger than 150 kb, including the recently characterized giant mimivirus. Given that horizontally transferred DNA often have anomalous nucleotide compositions differing from the rest of the genome, we conducted a detailed analysis of the inter- and intra-genome compositional properties of these viruses. We then interpreted their compositional heterogeneity in terms of possible causes, including strand asymmetry, gene function/expression, and horizontal transfer.
Results: We first show that the global nucleotide composition and nucleotide word usage of viral genomes are species-specific and distinct from those of their hosts. Next, we identified compositionally anomalous (cA) genes in viral genomes, using a method based on Bayesian inference. The proportion of cA genes is highly variable across viruses and does not exhibit a significant correlation with genome size. The vast majority of the cA genes were of unknown function, lacking homologs in the databases. For genes with known homologs, we found a substantial enrichment of cA genes in specific functional classes for some of the viruses. No significant association was found between cA genes and compositional strand asymmetry. A possible exogenous origin for a small fraction of the cA genes could be confirmed by phylogenetic reconstruction.
Conclusion: At odds with the traditional dogma, our results argue against frequent genetic transfers to large DNA viruses from their modern hosts. The large genome sizes of these viruses are not simply explained by an increased propensity to acquire foreign genes. This study also confirms that the anomalous nucleotide compositions of the cA genes is sometimes linked to particular biological functions or expression patterns, possibly leading to an overestimation of recent horizontal gene transfers.