Rapid evolution of the human gut virome

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Jul 23;110(30):12450-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1300833110. Epub 2013 Jul 8.


Humans are colonized by immense populations of viruses, which metagenomic analysis shows are mostly unique to each individual. To investigate the origin and evolution of the human gut virome, we analyzed the viral community of one adult individual over 2.5 y by extremely deep metagenomic sequencing (56 billion bases of purified viral sequence from 24 longitudinal fecal samples). After assembly, 478 well-determined contigs could be identified, which are inferred to correspond mostly to previously unstudied bacteriophage genomes. Fully 80% of these types persisted throughout the duration of the 2.5-y study, indicating long-term global stability. Mechanisms of base substitution, rates of accumulation, and the amount of variation varied among viral types. Temperate phages showed relatively lower mutation rates, consistent with replication by accurate bacterial DNA polymerases in the integrated prophage state. In contrast, Microviridae, which are lytic bacteriophages with single-stranded circular DNA genomes, showed high substitution rates (>10(-5) per nucleotide each day), so that sequence divergence over the 2.5-y period studied approached values sufficient to distinguish new viral species. Longitudinal changes also were associated with diversity-generating retroelements and virus-encoded Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats arrays. We infer that the extreme interpersonal diversity of human gut viruses derives from two sources, persistence of a small portion of the global virome within the gut of each individual and rapid evolution of some long-term virome members.

Keywords: CRISPR; diversity generating retroelement; metagenomics; microbiome.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • DNA, Viral / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Humans
  • Intestines / virology*
  • Metagenomics
  • Viruses / genetics*


  • DNA, Viral