Genome sequence of Rickettsia bellii illuminates the role of amoebae in gene exchanges between intracellular pathogens.
The recently sequenced Rickettsia felis genome revealed an unexpected plasmid carrying several genes usually associated with DNA transfer, suggesting that ancestral rickettsiae might have been endowed with a conjugation apparatus. Here we present the genome sequence of Rickettsia bellii, the earliest diverging species of known rickettsiae. The 1,552,076 base pair-long chromosome does not exhibit the colinearity observed between other rickettsia genomes, and encodes a complete set of putative conjugal DNA transfer genes most similar to homologues found in Protochlamydia amoebophila UWE25, an obligate symbiont of amoebae. The genome exhibits many other genes highly similar to homologues in intracellular bacteria of amoebae. We sought and observed sex pili-like cell surface appendages for R. bellii. We also found that R. bellii very efficiently multiplies in the nucleus of eukaryotic cells and survives in the phagocytic amoeba, Acanthamoeba polyphaga. These results suggest that amoeba-like ancestral protozoa could have served as a genetic "melting pot" where the ancestors of rickettsiae and other bacteria promiscuously exchanged genes, eventually leading to their adaptation to the intracellular lifestyle within eukaryotic cells.