Background: Integron systems are now recognized as important agents of bacterial evolution and are prevalent in most environments. One of the human pathogens known to harbor chromosomal integrons, the Treponema spirochetes are the only clade among spirochete species found to carry integrons. With the recent release of many new Treponema genomes, we were able to study the distribution of chromosomal integrons in this genus. Results: We find that the Treponema spirochetes implicated in human periodontal diseases and those isolated from cow and swine intestines contain chromosomal integrons, but not the Treponema species isolated from termite guts. By examining the species tree of selected spirochetes (based on 31 phylogenetic marker genes) and the phylogenetic tree of predicted integron integrases, and assisted by our analysis of predicted integron recombination sites, we found that all integron systems identified in Treponema spirochetes are likely to have evolved from a common ancestor - a horizontal gain into the clade. Subsequent to this event, the integron system was lost in the branch leading to the speciation of T. pallidum and T. phagedenis (the Treponema sps. implicated in sexually transmitted diseases). We also find that the lengths of the integron attC sites shortened through Treponema speciation, and that the integron gene cassettes of T. denticola are highly strain specific. Conclusions: This is the first comprehensive study to characterize the chromosomal integron systems in Treponema species. By characterizing integron distribution and cassette contents in the Treponema sps., we link the integrons to the speciation of the various species, especially to the pathogens T. pallidum and T. phagedenis.
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