It is becoming clear that, in addition to gene gain, the loss of genes may be an important evolutionary mechanism for many organisms. However, gene loss is often associated with an increased mutation rate, thus quickly erasing evidence from the genome. The analysis of evolutionarily related sequences can provide empirical evidence for gene loss events. This paper analyzes the sequences of over 300 genetically distinct papillomaviruses and provides evidence for a role of gene loss during the evolution of certain papillomavirus genomes. Phylogenetic analysis suggests that the viral E6 gene was lost at least twice. Despite belonging to distant papillomaviral genera, these viruses lacking a canonical E6 protein may potentially encode a highly hydrophobic protein from an overlapping open reading frame, which we designate E10. Evolutionary pressure working on this alternative frame, may explain why, despite having lost the E6 open reading frame between 20 and 60 million years ago, evidence of an E6-like protein is conserved.
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