Partial duplication of genetic material is prevalent in eukaryotes and provides potential for evolution of new traits. Prokaryotes, which are generally haploid in nature, can evolve new genes by partial chromosome duplication, known as merodiploidy. Little is known about merodiploid formation during genetic exchange processes, although merodiploids have been serendipitously observed in early studies of bacterial transformation. Natural bacterial transformation involves internalization of exogenous donor DNA and its subsequent integration into the recipient genome by homology. It contributes to the remarkable plasticity of the human pathogen Streptococcus pneumoniae through intra and interspecies genetic exchange. We report that lethal cassette transformation produced merodiploids possessing both intact and cassette-inactivated copies of the essential target gene, bordered by repeats (R) corresponding to incomplete copies of IS861. We show that merodiploidy is transiently stimulated by transformation, and only requires uptake of a ~3-kb DNA fragment partly repeated in the chromosome. We propose and validate a model for merodiploid formation, providing evidence that tandem-duplication (TD) formation involves unequal crossing-over resulting from alternative pairing and interchromatid integration of R. This unequal crossing-over produces a chromosome dimer, resolution of which generates a chromosome with the TD and an abortive chromosome lacking the duplicated region. We document occurrence of TDs ranging from ~100 to ~900 kb in size at various chromosomal locations, including by self-transformation (transformation with recipient chromosomal DNA). We show that self-transformation produces a population containing many different merodiploid cells. Merodiploidy provides opportunities for evolution of new genetic traits via alteration of duplicated genes, unrestricted by functional selective pressure. Transient stimulation of a varied population of merodiploids by transformation, which can be triggered by stresses such as antibiotic treatment in S. pneumoniae, reinforces the plasticity potential of this bacterium and transformable species generally.
Conflict of interest statement
The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
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This work was supported in part by the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme FP7/2007-2013 under grant agreement number HEALTH-F3-2009-222983 (Pneumopath project). SC was the recipient of a PhD thesis fellowship from the Ministère de la Recherche 2007-2009) and from the Fondation pour la Recherche Médicale (2010). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.