Background: Evolution of bacterial and archaeal genomes is a highly dynamic process that involves intensive loss of genes as well as gene gain via horizontal transfer, with a lesser contribution from gene duplication. The rates of these processes can be estimated by comparing genomes that are linked by an evolutionary tree. These estimated rates of genome dynamics events substantially differ for different functional classes of genes. The genes involved in defense against viruses and other invading DNA are among those that are gained and lost at the highest rates.
Results: We employed a stochastic birth-and-death model to obtain maximum likelihood estimates of the rates of gain and loss of defense genes in 35 groups of closely related bacterial genomes and one group of archaeal genomes. We find that on average, the defense genes experience 1.4 fold higher flux than the rest of microbial genes. This excessive flux of defense genes over the genomic mean is consistent across diverse microbial groups. The few exceptions include intracellular parasites with small, degraded genomes that possess few defense systems which are more stable than in other microbes. Generally, defense genes follow the previously established pattern of genome dynamics, with gene family loss being about 3 times more common than gain and an order of magnitude more common than expansion or contraction of gene families. Case by case analysis of the evolutionary dynamics of defense genes indicates frequent multiple events in the same locus and widespread involvement of mobile elements in the gain and loss of defense genes.
Conclusions: Evolution of microbial defense systems is highly dynamic but, notwithstanding the host-parasite arms race, generally follows the same trends that have been established for the rest of the genes. Apart from the paucity and the low flux of defense genes in parasitic bacteria with deteriorating genomes, there is no clear connection between the evolutionary regime of defense systems and microbial life style.