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Interruptions in gene expression drive highly expressed operons to the leading strand of DNA replication.


In bacteria, most genes are on the leading strand of replication, a phenomenon attributed to collisions between the DNA and RNA polymerases. In Escherichia coli, these collisions slow the movement of the replication fork through actively transcribed genes only if they are coded on the lagging strand. For genes on both strands, however, these collisions sever nascent transcripts and interrupt gene expression. Based on these observations, we propose a new theory to explain strand bias: genes whose expression is important for fitness are selected to the leading strand because this reduces the duration of these interruptions. Our theory predicts that multi-gene operons, which are subject to longer interruptions, should be more strongly selected to the leading strand than singleton transcripts. We show that this is true even after controlling for the tendency for essential genes, which are strongly biased to the leading strand, to occur in operons. Our theory also predicts that other factors that are associated with strand bias should have stronger effects for genes that are in operons. We find that expression level and phylogenetic ubiquity are correlated with strand bias for both essential and non-essential genes, but only for genes in operons.

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