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Recombination produces coherent bacterial species clusters in both core and accessory genomes.

Abstract

The model does not include explicit selection on individual genes, suggesting that crude comparisons of gene content may be a poor predictor of ecological function. We identify a clearly divergent subpopulation of pneumococci that are inconsistent with the model and may be considered genomically incoherent with the rest of the population. These strains have a distinct disease tropism and may be rationally defined as a separate species. We also find deviations from the model that may be explained by recent population bottlenecks or spatial structure.

Population samples show bacterial genomes can be divided into a core of ubiquitous genes and accessory genes that are present in a fraction of isolates. The ecological significance of this variation in gene content remains unclear. However, microbiologists agree that a bacterial species should be 'genomically coherent', even though there is no consensus on how this should be determined.

We use a parsimonious model combining diversification in both the core and accessory genome, including mutation, homologous recombination (HR) and horizontal gene transfer (HGT) introducing new loci, to produce a population of interacting clusters of strains with varying genome content. New loci introduced by HGT may then be transferred on by HR. The model fits well to a systematic population sample of 616 pneumococcal genomes, capturing the major features of the population structure with parameter values that agree well with empirical estimates.

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