Evolution and the complexity of bacteriophages

Philip Serwer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Background. The genomes of both long-genome (> 200 Kb) bacteriophages and long-genome eukaryotic viruses have cellular gene homologs whose selective advantage is not explained. These homologs add genomic and possibly biochemical complexity. Understanding their significance requires a definition of complexity that is more biochemically oriented than past empirically based definitions. Hypothesis. Initially, I propose two biochemistry-oriented definitions of complexity: either decreased randomness or increased encoded information that does not serve immediate needs. Then, I make the assumption that these two definitions are equivalent. This assumption and recent data lead to the following four-part hypothesis that explains the presence of cellular gene homologs in long bacteriophage genomes and also provides a pathway for complexity increases in prokaryotic cells: (1) Prokaryotes underwent evolutionary increases in biochemical complexity after the eukaryote/prokaryote splits. (2) Some of the complexity increases occurred via multi-step, weak selection that was both protected from strong selection and accelerated by embedding evolving cellular genes in the genomes of bacteriophages and, presumably, also archaeal viruses (first tier selection). (3) The mechanisms for retaining cellular genes in viral genomes evolved under additional, longer-term selection that was stronger (second tier selection). (4) The second tier selection was based on increased access by prokaryotic cells to improved biochemical systems. This access was achieved when DNA transfer moved to prokaryotic cells both the more evolved genes and their more competitive and complex biochemical systems. Testing the hypothesis. I propose testing this hypothesis by controlled evolution in microbial communities to (1) determine the effects of deleting individual cellular gene homologs on the growth and evolution of long genome bacteriophages and hosts, (2) find the environmental conditions that select for the presence of cellular gene homologs, (3) determine which, if any, bacteriophage genes were selected for maintaining the homologs and (4) determine the dynamics of homolog evolution. Implications of the hypothesis. This hypothesis is an explanation of evolutionary leaps in general. If accurate, it will assist both understanding and influencing the evolution of microbes and their communities. Analysis of evolutionary complexity increase for at least prokaryotes should include analysis of genomes of long-genome bacteriophages.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number30
JournalVirology Journal
StatePublished - 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Virology
  • Infectious Diseases


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