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Open Access Research article

Overlapping genes: a window on gene evolvability

Maxime Huvet* and Michael PH Stumpf

Author Affiliations

Theoretical Systems Biology Group, Department of life sciences, Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ, UK

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BMC Genomics 2014, 15:721  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-15-721

Published: 27 August 2014



The forces underlying genome architecture and organization are still only poorly understood in detail. Overlapping genes (genes partially or entirely overlapping) represent a genomic feature that is shared widely across biological organisms ranging from viruses to multi-cellular organisms. In bacteria, a third of the annotated genes are involved in an overlap. Despite the widespread nature of this arrangement, its evolutionary origins and biological ramifications have so far eluded explanation.


Here we present a comparative approach using information from 699 bacterial genomes that sheds light on the evolutionary dynamics of overlapping genes. We show that these structures exhibit high levels of plasticity.


We propose a simple model allowing us to explain the observed properties of overlapping genes based on the importance of initiation and termination of transcriptional and translational processes. We believe that taking into account the processes leading to the expression of protein-coding genes hold the key to the understanding of overlapping genes structures.

Overlapping genes; Evolution; Expression regulation; Operon