The decaying genome of Mycobacterium leprae
Everything that we need to know about Mycobacterium leprae, a close relative of the tubercle bacillus, is encrypted in its genome. Inspection of the 3.27 Mb genome sequence of an armadillo-derived Indian isolate of the leprosy bacillus identified 1,605 genes encoding proteins and 50 genes for stable RNA species. Comparison with the genome sequence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis revealed an extreme case of reductive evolution, since less than half of the genome contains functional genes while inactivated or pseudogenes are highly abundant. The level of gene duplication was approximately 34% and, on classification of the proteins into families, the largest functional groups were found to be involved in the metabolism and modification of fatty acids and polyketides, transport of metabolites, cell envelope synthesis and gene regulation. Reductive evolution, gene decay and genome downsizing have eliminated entire metabolic pathways, together with their regulatory circuits and accessory functions, particularly those involved in catabolism. This may explain the unusually long generation time and account for our inability to culture the leprosy bacillus.