The 16 S rRNA sequence has long been used uncritically as a molecular clock to infer phylogenetic relationships among prokaryotes without fully elucidating the evolutionary changes that this molecule undergoes. In this study, we investigated the functional evolvability of 16 S rRNA, using comparative RNA function analyses between the 16 S rRNAs of Escherichia coli (Proteobacteria) and Acidobacteria (78% identity, 334 nucleotide differences) in the common genetic background of E. coli. While the growth phenotype of an E. coli mutant harboring the acidobacterial gene was disrupted significantly, it was restored almost completely following introduction of a 16 S rRNA sequence with a single base-pair variation in helix 44; the remaining 332 nucleotides were thus functionally similar to those of E. coli. Our results suggest that 16 S rRNAs share an inflexible cradle structure formed by ribosomal proteins and have evolved by accumulating species-specific yet functionally similar mutations. While this experimental evidence suggests the neutral evolvability of 16 S rRNA genes and hence satisfies the necessary requirements to use the sequence as a molecular clock, it also implies the promiscuous nature of the 16 S rRNA gene, i.e., the occurrence of horizontal gene transfer among bacteria.
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