Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Leaderless genes in bacteria: clue to the evolution of translation initiation mechanisms in prokaryotes

Xiaobin Zheng123, Gang-Qing Hu124, Zhen-Su She12 and Huaiqiu Zhu123*

Author Affiliations

1 State Key Laboratory for Turbulence and Complex Systems and Department of Biomedical Engineering, College of Engineering, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

2 Center for Theoretical Biology, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

3 Center for Protein Science, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

4 Current address: Laboratory of Molecular Immunology, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Genomics 2011, 12:361  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-12-361

Published: 12 July 2011



Shine-Dalgarno (SD) signal has long been viewed as the dominant translation initiation signal in prokaryotes. Recently, leaderless genes, which lack 5'-untranslated regions (5'-UTR) on their mRNAs, have been shown abundant in archaea. However, current large-scale in silico analyses on initiation mechanisms in bacteria are mainly based on the SD-led initiation way, other than the leaderless one. The study of leaderless genes in bacteria remains open, which causes uncertain understanding of translation initiation mechanisms for prokaryotes.


Here, we study signals in translation initiation regions of all genes over 953 bacterial and 72 archaeal genomes, then make an effort to construct an evolutionary scenario in view of leaderless genes in bacteria. With an algorithm designed to identify multi-signal in upstream regions of genes for a genome, we classify all genes into SD-led, TA-led and atypical genes according to the category of the most probable signal in their upstream sequences. Particularly, occurrence of TA-like signals about 10 bp upstream to translation initiation site (TIS) in bacteria most probably means leaderless genes.


Our analysis reveals that leaderless genes are totally widespread, although not dominant, in a variety of bacteria. Especially for Actinobacteria and Deinococcus-Thermus, more than twenty percent of genes are leaderless. Analyzed in closely related bacterial genomes, our results imply that the change of translation initiation mechanisms, which happens between the genes deriving from a common ancestor, is linearly dependent on the phylogenetic relationship. Analysis on the macroevolution of leaderless genes further shows that the proportion of leaderless genes in bacteria has a decreasing trend in evolution.