While horizontal gene transfer is prevalent across the biosphere, the regulatory features that enable expression and functionalization of foreign DNA remain poorly understood. Here, we combine high-throughput promoter activity measurements and large-scale genomic analysis of regulatory regions to investigate the cross-compatibility of regulatory elements (REs) in bacteria.

Functional characterization of thousands of natural REs in three distinct bacterial species revealed distinct expression patterns according to RE and recipient phylogeny. Host capacity to activate foreign promoters was proportional to their genomic GC content, while many low GC regulatory elements were both broadly active and had more transcription start sites across hosts.

The difference in expression capabilities could be explained by the influence of the host GC content on the stringency of the AT-rich canonical σ70 motif necessary for transcription initiation. We further confirm the generalizability of this model and find widespread GC content adaptation of the σ70 motif in a set of 1,545 genomes from all major bacterial phyla.

Our analysis identifies a key mechanism by which the strength of the AT-rich σ70 motif relative to a host’s genomic GC content governs the capacity for expression of acquired DNA. These findings shed light on regulatory adaptation in the context of evolving genomic composition.

Read more: Nature