Original Article

Journal of Molecular Evolution

, Volume 76, Issue 5, pp 267-279

First online:

Evolutionary Analysis and Lateral Gene Transfer of Two-Component Regulatory Systems Associated with Heavy-Metal Tolerance in Bacteria

  • Juan L. BouzatAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, Bowling Green State University Email author 
  • , Matthew J. HoostalAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, Bowling Green State University

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Microorganisms have adapted intricate signal transduction mechanisms to coordinate tolerance to toxic levels of metals, including two-component regulatory systems (TCRS). In particular, both cop and czc operons are regulated by TCRS; the cop operon plays a key role in bacterial tolerance to copper, whereas the czc operon is involved in the efflux of cadmium, zinc, and cobalt from the cell. Although the molecular physiology of heavy metal tolerance genes has been extensively studied, their evolutionary relationships are not well-understood. Phylogenetic relationships among heavy-metal efflux proteins and their corresponding two-component regulatory proteins revealed orthologous and paralogous relationships from species divergences and ancient gene duplications. The presence of heavy metal tolerance genes on bacterial plasmids suggests these genes may be prone to spread through horizontal gene transfer. Phylogenetic inferences revealed nine potential examples of lateral gene transfer associated with metal efflux proteins and two examples for regulatory proteins. Notably, four of the examples suggest lateral transfer across major evolutionary domains. In most cases, differences in GC content in metal tolerance genes and their corresponding host genomes confirmed lateral gene transfer events. Three-dimensional protein structures predicted for the response regulators encoded by cop and czc operons showed a high degree of structural similarity with other known proteins involved in TCRS signal transduction, which suggests common evolutionary origins of functional phenotypes and similar mechanisms of action for these response regulators.


Cop Czc Heavy-metal tolerance Horizontal gene transfer Phylogenetics