Background: R.PabI is an exceptional restriction enzyme that functions as a DNA glycosylase. The enzyme excises an unmethylated base from its recognition sequence to generate apurinic/apyrimidinic (AP) sites, and also displays AP lyase activity, cleaving the DNA backbone at the AP site to generate the 3'-phospho alpha, beta-unsaturated aldehyde end in addition to the 5'-phosphate end. The resulting ends are difficult to religate with DNA ligase. The enzyme was originally isolated in Pyrococcus, a hyperthermophilic archaeon, and additional homologs subsequently identified in the epsilon class of the Gram-negative bacterial phylum Proteobacteria, such as Helicobacter pylori. Results: Systematic analysis of R.PabI homologs and their neighboring genes in sequenced genomes revealed co-occurrence of R.PabI with M.PabI homolog methyltransferase genes. R.PabI and M.PabI homolog genes are occasionally found at corresponding (orthologous) loci in different species, such as Helicobacter pylori, Helicobacter acinonychis and Helicobacter cetorum, indicating long-term maintenance of the gene pair. One R.PabI and M.PabI homolog gene pair is observed immediately after the GMP synthase gene in both Campylobacter and Helicobacter, representing orthologs beyond genera. The mobility of the PabI family of restriction-modification (RM) system between genomes is evident upon comparison of genomes of sibling strains/species. Analysis of R.PabI and M.PabI homologs in H. pylori revealed an insertion of integrative and conjugative elements (ICE), and replacement with a gene of unknown function that may specify a membrane-associated toxin (hrgC). In view of the similarity of HrgC with toxins in type I toxin-antitoxin systems, we addressed the biological significance of this substitution. Our data indicate that replacement with hrgC occurred in the common ancestor of hspAmerind and hspEAsia. Subsequently, H. pylori with and without hrgC were intermixed at this locus, leading to complex distribution of hrgC in East Asia and the Americas. In Malaysia, hrgC was horizontally transferred from hspEAsia to hpAsia2 strains. Conclusions: The PabI family of RM system behaves as a mobile, selfish genetic element, similar to the other families of Type II RM systems. Our analysis additionally revealed some cases of long-term inheritance. The distribution of the hrgC gene replacing the PabI family in the subpopulations of H. pylori, hspAmerind, hspEAsia and hpAsia2, corresponds to the two human migration events, one from East Asia to Americas and the other from China to Malaysia.
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