Cyanophages are characterized by vast genomic diversity and the formation of stable ecotypes over time. The evolution of phage diversity includes vertical processes, such as mutation, and horizontal processes, such as recombination and gene transfer. Here, we study the contribution of vertical and horizontal processes to short-term evolution of marine cyanophages. Analyzing time series data of Synechococcus
ecotypes spanning up to 17 years, we found a high contribution of recombination relative to mutation (r/m) in all ecotypes. Additionally, we found a molecular clock of substitution and recombination in one ecotype, RIM8. The estimated RIM8 evolutionary rates are 2.2 genome-wide substitutions per year (1.275 × 10−5
substitutions/site/year) and 29 genome-wide nucleotide alterations due to recombination per year. We found 26 variable protein families, of which only two families have a predicted functional annotation, suggesting that they are auxiliary metabolic genes with bacterial homologs. A comparison of our rate estimates to other phage evolutionary rate estimates in the literature reveals a negative correlation of phage substitution rates with their genome size. A comparison to evolutionary rates in bacterial organisms further shows that phages have high rates of mutation and recombination compared to their bacterial hosts. We conclude that the increased recombination rate in phages likely contributes to their vast genomic diversity.
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