Background: While, traditionally, regulation of gene expression can be grouped into transcriptional, translational, and post-translational mechanisms, some mechanisms of rapid genetic variation can also contribute to regulation of gene expression, e.g., phase variation.
Results: We show here that prokaryotes evolved to include homopolymeric tracts (HTs) within coding genes as a system that allows for efficient gene inactivation. Analyses of 81 bacterial and 18 archaeal genomes showed that poly(A) and poly(T) HTs are overrepresented in these genomes and preferentially located at the 5' end of coding genes. Location of HTs at the 5' end is not driven by a preferential placement of aminoacids encoded by the AAA and TTT codons at the N-terminal of proteins. The inlA gene of the pathogen L. monocytogenes was used as a model to further study the role of HTs in reversible gene inactivation. In a number of L. monocytogenes strains, inlA harbors a 5' poly(A) HT, which regularly shows frameshift mutation leading to expression of a truncated 8 aa InlA protein. Translational fusions of the inlA 5' end allowed us to estimate that the frequency of variation in this HT is about 1,000 fold higher than the estimated average point mutation frequency.
Conclusions: As frameshift mutations in HTs can occur at high frequencies and enable efficient gene inactivation, hypermutable HTs appear to represent a universal system for regulation of gene expression in prokaryotes. Combined with other studies indicating that HTs also enable rapid diversification of both coding and regulatory genetic sequences in eukaryotes, our data suggest that hypermutable HTs represent a general and rapid evolutionary mechanism facilitating adaptation and gene regulation across diverse organisms.