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Keywords:

  • polymorphic DNA;
  • contingency loci;
  • host–pathogen interaction;
  • stress tolerance;
  • evolution;
  • phase variation

Abstract

DNA tandem repeats (TRs), also designated as satellite DNA, are inter- or intragenic nucleotide sequences that are repeated two or more times in a head-to-tail manner. Because TR tracts are prone to strand-slippage replication and recombination events that cause the TR copy number to increase or decrease, loci containing TRs are hypermutable. An increasing number of examples illustrate that bacteria can exploit this instability of TRs to reversibly shut down or modulate the function of specific genes, allowing them to adapt to changing environments on short evolutionary time scales without an increased overall mutation rate. In this review, we discuss the prevalence and distribution of inter- and intragenic TRs in bacteria and the mechanisms of their instability. In addition, we review evidence demonstrating a role of TR variations in bacterial adaptation strategies, ranging from immune evasion and tissue tropism to the modulation of environmental stress tolerance. Nevertheless, while bioinformatic analysis reveals that most bacterial genomes contain a few up to several dozens of intra- and intergenic TRs, only a small fraction of these have been functionally studied to date.