Gene overlapping and size constraints in the viral world

Nadav Brandes, Michal Linial*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Background: Viruses are the simplest replicating units, characterized by a limited number of coding genes and an exceptionally high rate of overlapping genes. We sought a unified evolutionary explanation that accounts for their genome sizes, gene overlapping and capsid properties. Results: We performed an unbiased statistical analysis of ~100 families within ~400 genera that comprise the currently known viral world. We found that the volume utilization of capsids is often low, and greatly varies among viral families. Furthermore, although viruses span three orders of magnitude in genome length, they almost never have over 1500 overlapping nucleotides, or over four significantly overlapping genes per virus. Conclusions: Our findings undermine the generality of the compression theory, which emphasizes optimal packing and length dependency to explain overlapping genes and capsid size in viral genomes. Instead, we propose that gene novelty and evolution exploration offer better explanations to size constraints and gene overlapping in all viruses. Reviewers: This article was reviewed by Arne Elofsson and David Kreil.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number26
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
JournalBiology Direct
Issue number1
StatePublished - 21 May 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Brandes and Linial.


  • Baltimore groups
  • Capsid
  • Icosahedral virion
  • Open reading frame
  • VIPERdb
  • Viral evolution
  • ViralZone


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