Ecological adaptation in bacteria: speciation driven by codon selection

Mol Biol Evol. 2012 Dec;29(12):3669-83. doi: 10.1093/molbev/mss171. Epub 2012 Jun 26.


In bacteria, physiological change may be effected by a single gene acquisition, producing ecological differentiation without genetic isolation. Natural selection acting on such differences can reduce the frequency of genotypes that arise from recombination at these loci. However, gene acquisition can only account for recombination interference in the fraction of the genome that is tightly linked to the integration site. To identify additional loci that contribute to adaptive differences, we examined orthologous genes in species of Enterobacteriaceae to identify significant differences in the degree of codon selection. Significance was assessed using the Adaptive Codon Enrichment metric, which accounts for the variation in codon usage bias that is expected to arise from mutation and drift; large differences in codon usage bias were identified in more genes than would be expected to arise from stochastic processes alone. Genes in the same operon showed parallel differences in codon usage bias, suggesting that changes in the overall levels of gene expression led to changes in the degree of adaptive codon usage. Most significant differences between orthologous operons were found among those involved with specific environmental adaptations, whereas "housekeeping" genes rarely showed significant changes. When considered together, the loci experiencing significant changes in codon selection outnumber potentially adaptive gene acquisition events. The identity of genes under strong codon selection seems to be influenced by the habitat from which the bacteria were isolated. We propose a two-stage model for how adaptation to different selective regimes can drive bacterial speciation. Initially, gene acquisitions catalyze rapid ecological differentiation, which modifies the utilization of genes, thereby changing the strength of codon selection on them. Alleles develop fitness variation by substitution, producing recombination interference at these loci in addition to those flanking acquired genes, allowing sequences to diverge across the entire genome and establishing genetic isolation (i.e., protection from frequent homologous recombination).

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological / genetics*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Codon / genetics*
  • Environment*
  • Gene Transfer, Horizontal / genetics*
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Models, Genetic
  • Operon / genetics
  • Phylogeny*
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • Selection, Genetic / genetics*
  • Species Specificity


  • Codon