Molecular Evolution of Rickettsia Surface Antigens: Evidence of Positive Selection

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The Rickettsia genus is a group of obligate intracellular parasitic α-proteobacteria that includes human pathogens responsible for the typhus disease and various types of spotted fevers. rOmpA and rOmpB are two members of the “surface cell antigen” (Sca) autotransporter (AT) protein family that may play key roles in the adhesion of the Rickettsia cells to the host tissue. These molecules are likely determinants for the pathogenicity of the Rickettsia and represent good candidates for vaccine development. We identified the 17 members of this family of outer-membrane proteins in nine fully sequenced Rickettsia genomes. The typical architecture of the Sca proteins is composed of an N-terminal signal peptide and a C-terminal AT domain that promote the export of the central passenger domain to the outside of the bacteria. A characteristic of this family is the frequent degradation of the genes, which results in different subsets of the sca genes being expressed among Rickettsia species. Here, we present a detailed analysis of their phylogenetic relationships and evolution. We provide strong evidence that rOmpA and rOmpB as well as three other members of the Sca protein family—Sca1, Sca2, and Sca4—have evolved under positive selection. The exclusive distribution of the predicted positively selected sites within the passenger domains of these proteins argues that these regions are involved in the interaction with the host and may be locked in “arms race” coevolutionary conflicts.

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