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Unlinked rRNA genes are widespread among Bacteria and Archaea

By Tess E Brewer, Mads Albertsen, Arwyn Edwards, Rasmus Hansen Kirkegaard, Eduardo P. C. Rocha, Noah Fierer

Posted 16 Jul 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/705046 (published DOI: 10.1038/s41396-019-0552-3)

Ribosomes are essential to cellular life and the genes for their RNA components are the most conserved and transcribed genes in Bacteria and Archaea. These ribosomal rRNA genes are typically organized into a single operon, an arrangement that is thought to facilitate gene regulation. In reality, some Bacteria and Archaea do not share this canonical rRNA arrangement - their 16S and 23S rRNA genes are not co-located, but are instead separated across the genome and referred to as "unlinked". This rearrangement has previously been treated as a rare exception or a byproduct of genome degradation in obligate intracellular bacteria. Here, we leverage complete genome and long-read metagenomic data to show that unlinked 16S and 23S rRNA genes are much more common than previously thought. Unlinked rRNA genes occur in many phyla, most significantly within Deinococcus-Thermus, Chloroflexi, Planctomycetes, and Euryarchaeota, and occur in differential frequencies across natural environments. We found that up to 41% of the taxa in soil, including dominant taxa, had unlinked rRNA genes, in contrast to the human gut, where all sequenced rRNA genes were linked. The frequency of unlinked rRNA genes may reflect meaningful life history traits, as they tend to be associated with a mix of slow-growing free-living species and obligatory intracellular species. Unlinked rRNA genes are also associated with changes in RNA metabolism, notably the loss of RNaseIII. We propose that unlinked rRNA genes may confer selective advantages in some environments, though the specific nature of these advantages remains undetermined and worthy of further investigation.

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