Evolutionary pressures on simple sequence repeats in prokaryotic coding regions

Nucleic Acids Res. 2012 Mar;40(6):2399-413. doi: 10.1093/nar/gkr1078. Epub 2011 Nov 28.


Simple sequence repeats (SSRs) are indel mutational hotspots in genomes. In prokaryotes, SSR loci can cause phase variation, a microbial survival strategy that relies on stochastic, reversible on-off switching of gene activity. By analyzing multiple strains of 42 fully sequenced prokaryotic species, we measure the relative variability and density distribution of SSRs in coding regions. We demonstrate that repeat type strongly influences indel mutation rates, and that the most mutable types are most strongly avoided across genomes. We thoroughly characterize SSR density and variability as a function of N→C position along protein sequences. Using codon-shuffling algorithms that preserve amino acid sequence, we assess evolutionary pressures on SSRs. We find that coding sequences suppress repeats in the middle of proteins, and enrich repeats near termini, yielding U-shaped SSR density curves. We show that for many species this characteristic shape can be attributed to purely biophysical constraints of protein structure. In multiple cases, however, particularly in certain pathogenic bacteria, we observe over enrichment of SSRs near protein N-termini significantly beyond expectation based on structural constraints. This increases the probability that frameshifts result in non-functional proteins, revealing that these species may evolutionarily tune SSR positions in coding regions to facilitate phase variation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Archaea / genetics
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Codon
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • INDEL Mutation*
  • Microsatellite Repeats*
  • Sequence Analysis, Protein


  • Codon