Background: Chlamydia have reduced genomes that reflect their obligately parasitic lifestyle. Despite their different tissue tropisms, chlamydial strains share a large number of common genes and have few recognized pseudogenes, indicating genomic stability. All of the Chlamydiaceae have homologs of the aaxABC gene cluster that encodes a functional arginine:agmatine exchange system in Chlamydia (Chlamydophila)pneumoniae. However, Chlamydia trachomatis serovar L2 strains have a nonsense mutation in their aaxB genes, and C. trachomatis serovar A and B strains have frameshift mutations in their aaxC homologs, suggesting that relaxed selection may have enabled the evolution of aax pseudogenes. Biochemical experiments were performed to determine whether the aaxABC genes from C. trachomatis strains were transcribed, and mutagenesis was used to identify nucleotide substitutions that prevent protein maturation and activity. Molecular evolution techniques were applied to determine the relaxation of selection and the scope of aax gene inactivation in the Chlamydiales.
Results: The aaxABC genes were co-transcribed in C. trachomatis L2/434, during the mid-late stage of cellular infection. However, a stop codon in the aaxB gene from this strain prevented the heterologous production of an active pyruvoyl-dependent arginine decarboxylase. Replacing that ochre codon with its ancestral tryptophan codon rescued the activity of this self-cleaving enzyme. The aaxB gene from C. trachomatis D/UW-3 was heterologously expressed as a proenzyme that failed to cleave and form the catalytic pyruvoyl cofactor. This inactive protein could be rescued by replacing the arginine-115 codon with an ancestral glycine codon. The aaxC gene from the D/UW-3 strain encoded an active arginine:agmatine antiporter protein, while the L2/434 homolog was unexpectedly inactive. Yet the frequencies of nonsynonymous versus synonymous nucleotide substitutions show no signs of relaxed selection, consistent with the recent inactivation of these genes.
Conclusion: The ancestor of the Chlamydiaceae had a functional arginine:agmatine exchange system that is decaying through independent, parallel processes in the C. trachomatis lineage. Differences in arginine metabolism among Chlamydiaceae species may be partly associated with their tissue tropism, possibly due to the protection conferred by a functional arginine-agmatine exchange system against host nitric oxide production and innate immunity. The independent loss of AaxB activity in all sequenced C. trachomatis strains indicates continual gene inactivation and illustrates the difficulty of recognizing recent bacterial pseudogenes from sequence comparison, transcriptional profiling or the analysis of nucleotide substitution rates.