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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The IGS-ETS in Bacillus (Insecta Phasmida): molecular characterization and the relevance of sex in ribosomal DNA evolution

Andrea Ricci, Valerio Scali and Marco Passamonti*

Author Affiliations

Dipartimento di Biologia Evoluzionistica Sperimentale, University of BolognaVia Selmi 3, 40126 Bologna, Italy

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:278  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-278

Published: 9 October 2008



DNA encoding for ribosomal RNA (rDNA) is arranged in tandemly-repeated subunits, each containing ribosomal genes and non-coding spacers. Because tandemly-repeated, rDNA evolves under a balanced influence of selection and "concerted evolution", which homogenizes rDNA variants over the genome (through genomic turnover mechanisms) and the population (through sexuality).


In this paper we analyzed the IGS-ETS of the automictic parthenogen Bacillus atticus and the bisexual B. grandii, two closely related stick-insect species. Both species share the same IGS-ETS structure and sequence, including a peculiar head-to-tail array of putative transcription enhancers, here named Bag530. Sequence variability of both IGS-ETS and Bag530 evidenced a neat geographic and subspecific clustering in B. grandii, while B. atticus shows a little but evident geographic structure. This was an unexpected result, since the parthenogen B. atticus should lack sequence fixation through sexuality. In B. atticus a new variant might spread in a given geographic area through colonization by an all-female clone, but we cannot discard the hypothesis that B. atticus was actually a bisexual taxon in that area at the time the new variant appeared. Moreover, a gene conversion event between two Bag530 variants of B. grandii benazzii and B. grandii maretimi suggested that rRNA might evolve according to the so-called "library hypothesis" model, through differential amplification of rDNA variants in different taxa.


On the whole, Bacillus rDNA evolution appears to be under a complex array of interacting mechanisms: homogenization may be achieved through genomic turnover that stabilizes DNA-binding protein interactions but, simultaneously, new sequence variants can be adopted, either by direct appearance of newly mutated repeats, or by competition among repeats, so that both DNA-binding proteins and repeat variants drive each other's evolution. All this, coupled with chromosome reshuffling due to sexuality (when present), might drive a quick fixation of new rDNA variants in the populations.