Microbial Genetics


Microbial Genetics

İ. Çağatay Acuner

M.D., Clinical Microbiologist, Associate Professor

Department of Microbiology

Faculty of Medicine, Yeditepe University

Learning Objectives

Explain basics of nucleic acid function in bacteria

– (replication of DNA, chromosome replication, DNA repair, gene expression, gene organization)

Describe sources of mutation and variation in bacteria

Describe basic features of bacteriophages and plasmids

Describe mechanisms of gene transfer in bacteria

Explain the importance of genomic plasticity in bacteria

References and Recommended Further Readings


Medical Microbiology, 7th Ed. Murray P.R., Rosenthal K.S., Pfaller M.A.

2013, Mosby.


Mim’s Medical Microbiology, 5th Ed. Goering R.V., et al. 2012, Mosby.


Sherris Medical Microbiology, 5th Ed. Ryan K.J., et al. 2010, McGraw Hill.

Bacterial Genome

• Bacterial genome is the total collection of genes carried by a bacterium

– on chromosome

– on extrachromosomal genetic elements

• Genes are sequences of nucleotides that have a biologic function

– Examples;

• protein-structural genes (cistrons, which are coding genes),

• ribosomal ribonucleic acid ( RNA) genes ,

recognition and binding sites for other molecules ( promoters and operators )

Each genome contains many operons, which are made up of genes

Eukaryotes have two distinct copies of each chromosome; diploid

• Bacteria have only one copy of their chromosomes ; haploid

• Because bacteria have only one chromosome , alteration of a gene (mutation) will have a more obvious effect on the cell

• The structure of the bacterial chromosome is maintained by polyamines;

– spermine and spermidine (not by histones)

• Bacteria may also contain extrachromosomal genetic elements ;

– plasmids

– bacteriophages (bacterial viruses)

• these elements are independent of the bacterial chromosome

• in most cases can be transmitted from one cell to another

Escherichia coli genome

Comparative genomes (genomics) of Escherichia coli strains


• Transcription ;

– The information carried in the genetic memory of the DNA is transcribed into a useful messenger RNA (mRNA) for subsequent translation into protein

– RNA synthesis is performed by a DNA-dependent RNA polymerase

• sigma factor;

recognizes a particular sequence of nucleotides in the DNA (the promoter)

– binds tightly to this site

» promoter sequences occur just before the start of the DNA that actually encodes a protein

» sigma factors bind to these promoters to provide a docking site for the RNA polymerase

» Some bacteria encode several sigma factors to allow transcription of a group of genes under

special conditions, such as heat shock, starvation, special nitrogen metabolism, or sporulation

polymerase binds to the appropriate site on the DNA

sequential addition of ribonucleotides occur complementary to the sequence in the DNA

• entire gene or group of genes (operon) is transcribed

RNA polymerase dissociates from the DNA

Other RNA types that are also transcribed from the DNA;

• transfer RNA (tRNA)

– which is used in protein synthesis

• ribosomal RNA (rRNA )

– a component of the ribosomes

DNA codon table


• Transcription ;

– Promoters and operators control the expression of a gene by;

• influencing which sequences will be transcribed into messenger RNA (mRNA)

– Operons;

• groups of;

– one or more structural genes ;

» expressed from a particular promoter

» ending at a transcriptional terminator

• Thus all the genes

– coding for the enzymes of a particular pathway;

» can be coordinately regulated

– Operons with many structural genes ;

• polycistronic

– Example;

• E. coli lac operon ;

– includes all the genes necessary for lactose metabolism , and

– the control mechanisms ;

» turning off ( in the presence of glucose ) or

» turning on ( in the presence of galactose or an inducer )

lac operon includes;

– a repressor sequence,

– a promoter sequence, and

structural genes for the β-galactosidase enzyme

a permease, and

– an acetylase

E. coli lac operon


• Translation ;

• Translation is the process by which the language of the genetic code ,

in the form of mRNA,

• is converted (translated) into a sequence of amino acids ;

– the protein product


• Translation ;

– Codon ;

• a set of three nucleotides

– each correspond to either;

» an amino acid or

» a stop or start information

• 64 different codon combinations

– encoding;

» 20 amino acids

» start (5’UTR →fMet≈AUG in prokaryotes) and termination -stop- (UAA,

UGA, UAG) codons

– ‘Degeneracy’ of the genetic code ;

some of the amino acids are encoded by more than one triplet codon

– this feature protects the cell from the effects of minor mutations in the DNA or mRNA

– Anticodon;

each tRNA molecule;

– contains a three-nucleotide sequence complementary to one of the codon sequences

» allows base pairing

» binds to the codon sequence on the mRNA

– Amino acid ;

• attached to the opposite end of the tRNA

• corresponds to the particular codon-anticodon pair

Control of Gene Expression

• Bacteria have developed;

– mechanisms to adapt quickly and efficiently to ;

changes and triggers from the environment

adaptation mechanisms allow them to;

• coordinate and regulate the expression of genes

– for ;

» multicomponent structures or

» the enzymes of one or more metabolic pathways

– many bacterial genes are controlled at ;

• multiple levels and

• by multiple methods

a coordinated change in the expression of many genes occurs through use of a

different sigma factor for the RNA polymerase (e.g. sporulation)

• this would change the specificity of the RNA polymerase and allow

mRNA synthesis for the necessary genes while ignoring unnecessary genes

– bacteria might produce more than six different sigma factors to;

provide global regulation in response to;

– stress,

– shock,

– starvation,

coordinate production of complicated structures (e.g. flagella)

Control of Gene Expression

Simple triggers can turn on or turn off the transcription of a single gene or a group of genes;

– temperature,

– osmolarity,

– pH,

– nutrient availability, or

– the concentration of specific small molecules ,

• such as oxygen or iron

• The expression of the components of virulence mechanisms ;

– also coordinately regulated from an operon

Salmonella invasion genes within a pathogenicity island are turned on by high osmolarity and low oxygen, conditions present in the gastrointestinal tract

E. coli senses its exit from the gut of a host by;

a drop in temperature,

» and inactivates its adherence genes

Low iron levels;

– can activate expression of hemolysin in E. coli or

– diphtheria toxin from Corynebacterium diphtheriae, potentially to kill cells and provide iron

– Quorum sensing for;

• virulence factors of S. aureus

• biofilm production by Pseudomonas spp.

Replication of DNA

Replication of the bacterial genome ;

– linked to the growth rate of the cell

initiated at a specific sequence in the chromosome called OriC

requires many enzymes;

• Helicase ;

– to unwind the DNA at the origin to expose the DNA,

• Primase ;

– to synthesize primers to start the process, and

• DNA-dependent DNA polymerase/s ;

– that synthesize a copy of the DNA,

» but only if there is a primer sequence to add to and only in the 5' to 3' direction

– new DNA is synthesized semiconservatively;

• using both strands of the parental DNA as templates

– new DNA synthesis;

• occurs at growing forks

• proceeds bidirectionally

– leading strand is copied continuously in the 5' to 3' direction

– lagging strand must be synthesized as many pieces of DNA using RNA primers (Okazaki fragments)

Replication of DNA

• lagging-strand DNA must be extended in the 5' to 3' direction as its template becomes available

– then the pieces are ligated together by the enzyme DNA ligase

to maintain the high degree of accuracy required for replication,

– the DNA polymerases possess "proofreading" functions ,

• which allow the enzyme to confirm that the appropriate nucleotide was inserted and to correct any errors that were made

• during log-phase growth in rich medium, many initiations of chromosomal replication may occur before cell division

– this process produces a series of nested bubbles of new daughter chromosomes, each with its pair of growth forks of new DNA synthesis

– the polymerase moves down the DNA strand, incorporating the appropriate

(complementary) nucleotide at each position

• replication is complete when;

– the two replication forks meet 180 degrees from the origin

• the process of DNA replication puts great torsional strain on the chromosomal circle of DNA;

– this strain is relieved by topoisomerases (e.g., gyrase), which supercoil the DNA

Bacterial DNA replication

• New DNA synthesis occurs at growing forks and proceeds bidirectionally.

• DNA synthesis progresses in the 5' to 3' direction continuously (leading strand) or in pieces (lagging strand).

• Assuming it takes 40 minutes to complete one round of replication, and assuming new initiation every 20 minutes, initiation of DNA synthesis precedes cell division.

• Multiple growing forks may be initiated in a cell before complete septum formation and cell division.

• The daughter cells are "born pregnant."

Bacterial cell division

• Replication requires extension of the cell wall and replication of the chromosome and septum formation.

• Membrane attachment of the DNA pulls each daughter strand into a new cell.

Mechanisms of Genetic Transfer between Cells

• The exchange of genetic material between bacterial cells may occur by;

– (1 ) conjugation ;

• which is the mating or quasisexual exchange of genetic information from one bacterium (the donor) to another bacterium (the recipient)

– (2) transformation ;

• which results in acquisition of new genetic markers by the incorporation of exogenous or foreign DNA from the environment

– (3 ) transduction ;

• which is the transfer of genetic information from one bacterium to another by a bacteriophage

– (4?) Once inside a cell, a transposon can jump between different DNA molecules (e.g., plasmid to plasmid or plasmid to chromosome)


• Bacteria take up fragments of naked DNA and incorporate them into their genomes

First mechanism of genetic transfer to be discovered in bacteria

– (1928, Griffith, +15 years Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty);

• observed that pneumococcus virulence was related to the presence of a surrounding polysaccharide capsule

– and that extracts of encapsulated bacteria producing smooth colonies could transmit this trait to nonencapsulated bacteria, normally appearing with rough edges

Gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria can take up and stably maintain exogenous DNA

• Certain species are naturally capable of taking up exogenous DNA; competent;

Haemophilus influenzae, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Bacillus species, and Neisseria species

• Most bacteria do not exhibit a natural ability for DNA uptake


• Conjugation;

– one-way transfer of DNA from a donor (or male) cell to a recipient (or female) cell through the sex pilus (or adhesin)

– the mating type (sex) of the cell depends on;

• the presence (male) or absence (female) of a conjugative plasmid ;

– such as the F plasmid of E. coli

» F plasmid is defined as conjugative because;

• carries all the genes necessary for its own transfer

• including the ability to make sex pili

• initiate DNA synthesis at the transfer origin (OriT) of the plasmid

• transfers itself

• converting recipients into F+ male cells

– usually occurs between members of the same or related species ,

– but also may occur between prokaryotes and cells from plants, animals, and fungi

– Examples;

E. coli, bacteroides, enterococci, streptococci, streptomycetes, and clostridia

– Large conjugative plasmids specify ;

• colicin

• antibiotic resistance (by adhesins)


• Conjugation;

– Hfr (high frequency recombination) cell;

• If a fragment of chromosomal DNA has been incorporated into the plasmid;

– it is designated an F prime (F') plasmid

» when it transfers into the recipient cell,

• it carries that fragment with it and converts it into an F' male

• if the F’ plasmid sequence (F’) is integrated into the bacterial chromosome,

• the cell is designated an Hfr (high frequency recombination) cell

– DNA that is transferred by conjugation is a single-stranded molecule

• recircularized and its complementary strand synthesized in the recipient cell

– Integration of an F plasmid into the bacterial chromosome generates an Hfr cell

– Conjugation results in transfer of;

• a part of the plasmid sequence, and

• some portion of the bacterial chromosomal DNA

– because of the fragile connection between the mating pairs, the transfer is usually aborted before being completed;

» such that only the chromosomal sequences adjacent to the integrated

F are transferred


• Genetic transfer by transduction;

– is mediated by;

bacterial viruses (bacteriophages);

– pick up fragments of DNA

– package them into bacteriophage particles

– DNA is;

» delivered to infected cells

» becomes incorporated into the bacterial genomes

Transduction can be classified as;

– specialized;

• if the phages in question transfer particular genes (usually those adjacent to their integration sites in the genome)

– generalized;

• if the selection of the sequences is random because of accidental packaging of host

DNA into the phage capsid

Underlying common mechanism: Recombination

• Incorporation of extrachromosomal (foreign) DNA into the chromosome occurs by recombination.

• There are two types of recombination:

– homologous

– nonhomologous

• Homologous (legitimate) recombination ;

– occurs between closely related DNA sequences

– generally substitutes one sequence for another

– requires a set of enzymes produced (in E. coli) by the rec genes

Nonhomologous (illegitimate) recombination;

– occurs between dissimilar DNA sequences

• generally produces ;

– insertions or

– deletions or

– both

– requires specialized (sometimes site-specific) recombination enzymes ,

• such as those produced by;

– many transposons

– lysogenic bacteriophages


The pBR322 plasmid is one of the plasmids used for cloning DNA.

This plasmid encodes resistance to ampicillin (Amp) and tetracycline (Tet) and an origin of replication (ori).

The multiple cloning site in the pGEM plasmid provides different restriction enzyme cleavage sites for insertion of DNA within the βgalactosidase gene (lacZ).

The insert is flanked by bacteriophage promoters to allow directional messenger RNA expression of the cloned sequence.


• A, The insertion sequences code only for a transposase (tnp) and possess inverted repeats (15 to 40 base pairs) at each end.

• B, The composite transposons contain a central region coding for antibiotic resistances or toxins flanked by two insertion sequences (IS), which can be either directly repeated or reversed.

• C, Tn3, a member of the TnA transposon family. The central region encodes three genes-a transposase (tnpA), a resolvase

(tnpR), and a β-lactamase-conferring resistance to ampicillin. A resolution site (Res site) is used during the replicative transposition process. This central region is flanked on both ends by direct repeats of 38 base pairs.

• D, Phage-associated transposon is exemplified by the bacteriophage mu.

Mechanisms of bacterial gene transfer