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Gene copy number variation and its significance in cyanobacterial phylogeny

Bettina E Schirrmeister12*, Daniel A Dalquen34, Maria Anisimova34 and Homayoun C Bagheri1

Author affiliations

1 Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstr. 190, 8057 Zurich, Switzerland

2 School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Wills Memorial Building, Queens Road, Bristol BS8 1RJ, UK

3 Computational Biochemistry Research Group, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Universitätstrasse 6, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland

4 , Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, Universitätstrasse 6, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland

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Citation and License

BMC Microbiology 2012, 12:177  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-12-177

Published: 15 August 2012



In eukaryotes, variation in gene copy numbers is often associated with deleterious effects, but may also have positive effects. For prokaryotes, studies on gene copy number variation are rare. Previous studies have suggested that high numbers of rRNA gene copies can be advantageous in environments with changing resource availability, but further association of gene copies and phenotypic traits are not documented. We used one of the morphologically most diverse prokaryotic phyla to test whether numbers of gene copies are associated with levels of cell differentiation.


We implemented a search algorithm that identified 44 genes with highly conserved copies across 22 fully sequenced cyanobacterial taxa. For two very basal cyanobacterial species, Gloeobacter violaceus and a thermophilic Synechococcus species, distinct phylogenetic positions previously found were supported by identical protein coding gene copy numbers. Furthermore, we found that increased ribosomal gene copy numbers showed a strong correlation to cyanobacteria capable of terminal cell differentiation. Additionally, we detected extremely low variation of 16S rRNA sequence copies within the cyanobacteria. We compared our results for 16S rRNA to three other eubacterial phyla (Chroroflexi, Spirochaetes and Bacteroidetes). Based on Bayesian phylogenetic inference and the comparisons of genetic distances, we could confirm that cyanobacterial 16S rRNA paralogs and orthologs show significantly stronger conservation than found in other eubacterial phyla.


A higher number of ribosomal operons could potentially provide an advantage to terminally differentiated cyanobacteria. Furthermore, we suggest that 16S rRNA gene copies in cyanobacteria are homogenized by both concerted evolution and purifying selection. In addition, the small ribosomal subunit in cyanobacteria appears to evolve at extraordinary slow evolutionary rates, an observation that has been made previously for morphological characteristics of cyanobacteria.

Prokaryotic phylogenetics; Concerted evolution; Gene copy number variation; Ribosomal rRNA; Cyanobacterial morphology; Gloeobacter violaceus