Theses Doctoral

A Comparative Analysis of Genome Rearrangement in Ciliates

Feng, Yi

Ciliates are model organisms for studying programmed genome rearrangement because each cell houses two distinct genomes. During postzygotic development, the somatic genome rearranges from a copy of the germline genome via extensive genome remodeling, including DNA elimination, religation and sometimes translocation or inversion of genomic regions. Previous studies of this process were restricted to a few model ciliates including Tetrahymena thermophila, Paramecium tetraurelia and Oxytricha trifallax. Oxytricha diverged from Tetrahymena and Paramecium over one billion years ago, and it possesses a massively fragmented and scrambled germline genome. My thesis compares Oxytricha to more closely related ciliates to address the evolutionary origin of genome complexity.

Chapter 1 provides a general introduction to genome architecture, comparison of well-studied ciliate genomes and challenges of studying genome rearrangement in non-model ciliates.

Chapter 2 describes a computational pipeline, SIGAR (Split-read Inference of Genome Architecture and Rearrangements), which infers genome rearrangement features without a germline genome assembly. We validated the pipeline using a published Oxytricha dataset, and also applied it to six diverse ciliate species including Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, a fish pathogen. This pipeline enables pilot surveys or exploration of chromosomal rearrangement in ciliates with limited germline DNA access, thereby providing new insights into the evolution of DNA rearrangement.

Chapter 3 presents a comparative genomic study of three ciliate species including Oxytricha trifallax, Tetmemena sp. and Euplotes woodruffi. Collaborating with my colleagues, I assembled and annotated germline genomes in Tetmemena and E. woodruffi, as well as E. woodruffi’s somatic genome. We identified scrambled genes in all three species, especially the earlier-diverged E. woodruffi, though at a lower level (7.3% of gene loci) compared to Oxytricha (15.6%) and Tetmemena (13.6%). E. woodruffi may therefore represent an intermediate between the nonscrambled ancestral genome and more massively scrambled genomes as can be seen in Oxytricha and Tetmemena. We also found that scrambled genes tend to have more paralogs or have partial MDS duplications, suggesting that local duplications might play a role in the evolutionary origin of scrambled genes.

Chapter 4 reports a new genetic code identified in a basal spirotrich ciliate, Licnophora macfarlandi. Ciliates have been a hot spot for the evolution of alternative genetic codes. All variant genetic codes in ciliates reassign canonical stop codons to amino acids, and in most cases the UAA and UAG are reassigned to the same amino acid, or are both used as stop codons. The codon usage analysis in Licnophora revealed an unprecedented genetic code that translates the UAA to glutamic acid and the UAG to glutamine. We also detected candidate tRNAs from the somatic genome which can recognize the UAA and UAG.

Chapter 5 describes possible future directions to understand the genome complexity of ciliates.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Biological Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Landweber, Laura
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 15, 2021