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. 1996;50:401-29.
doi: 10.1146/annurev.micro.50.1.401.

Towards a Unified Evolutionary Genetics of Microorganisms


Towards a Unified Evolutionary Genetics of Microorganisms

M Tibayrenc. Annu Rev Microbiol. .


I propose here that evolutionary genetics, apart from improving our basic knowledge of the taxonomy and evolution of microbes (either eukaryotes or prokaryotes), can also greatly contribute to applied research in microbiology. Evolutionary genetics provides convenient guidelines for better interpreting genetic and molecular data dealing with microorganisms. The three main potential applications of evolutionary genetics in microbiology are (a) epidemiological follow-up (with the necessity of evaluating the stability of microbial genotypes over space and time); (b) taxonomy in the broad sense (better definition and sharper delimitation of presently described taxa, research of hidden genetic subdivisions); and (c) evaluation of the impact of the genetic diversity of microbes on their relevant properties (pathogenicity, resistance to drugs, etc). At present, two main kinds of population structure can be distinguished in natural microbial populations: (a) species that are not subdivided into discrete phylogenetic lineages (panmictic species or basically sexual species with occasional bouts of short-term clonality fall into this category); (b) species that are strongly subdivided by either cryptic speciation or clonal evolution. Improvements in available statistical methods are required to refine these distinctions and to better quantify the actual impact of gene exchange in natural microbial populations. Moreover, a codified selection of markers with appropriate molecular clocks (in other words: adapted levels of resolution) is sorely needed to answer distinct questions that address different scales of time and space: experimental, epidemic, and evolutionary. The problems raised by natural genetic diversity are very similar for all microbial species, in terms of both basic and applied science. Despite this fact, a regrettable compartmentalization among specialists has hampered progress in this field. I propose a synthetic approach, relying on the statistical improvements and technical standardizations called for above, to settle a unified evolutionary genetics of microorganisms, valid whatever the species studied, whether eukaryotic (parasitic protozoa and fungi) or prokaryotic (bacteria). Apart from benefits for basic evolutionary research, the anticipated payoff from this synthetic approach is to render routine and common-place the use of microbial evolutionary genetics in the fields of epidemiology, medicine, and agronomy.

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