Restriction-modification (R-M) systems are often regarded as bacteria's innate immune systems, protecting cells from infection by mobile genetic elements (MGEs). Their diversification has been recently associated with the emergence of particularly virulent lineages. However, we have previously found more R-M systems in genomes carrying more MGEs. Furthermore, it has been suggested that R-M systems might favor genetic transfer by producing recombinogenic double-stranded DNA ends. To test whether R-M systems favor or disfavor genetic exchanges, we analyzed their frequency with respect to the inferred events of homologous recombination and horizontal gene transfer within 79 bacterial species. Genetic exchanges were more frequent in bacteria with larger genomes and in those encoding more R-M systems. We created a recognition target motif predictor for Type II R-M systems that identifies genomes encoding systems with similar restriction sites. We found more genetic exchanges between these genomes, independently of their evolutionary distance. Our results reconcile previous studies by showing that R-M systems are more abundant in promiscuous species, wherein they establish preferential paths of genetic exchange within and between lineages with cognate R-M systems. Because the repertoire and/or specificity of R-M systems in bacterial lineages vary quickly, the preferential fluxes of genetic transfer within species are expected to constantly change, producing time-dependent networks of gene transfer.
Journal: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America