The Genome Size Matters


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There is great variability as well as overlap among the genome sizes of various groups of
organisms and viruses.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

There is great variation in size of genomes among different organisms. Most eukaryotes maintain multiple chromosomes; humans, for example have 23 pairs, giving them 46 chromosomes. Despite being large at 3 billion base pairs, the human genome is far from the largest genome. Plants often maintain very large genomes, up to 150 billion base pairs, and commonly are polyploid, having multiple copies of each chromosome.

The size of bacterial genomes also varies considerably, although they tend to be smaller than eukaryotic genomes. Some bacterial genomes may be as small as only 112,000 base pairs. Often, the size of a bacterium’s genome directly relates to how much the bacterium depends on its host for survival. When a bacterium relies on the host cell to carry out certain functions, it loses the genes encoding the abilities to carry out those functions itself. These types of bacterial endosymbionts are reminiscent of the prokaryotic
origins of mitochondria and chloroplasts.

1 million base pairs). Because host cells supply most of their nutrients, they tend to have a reduced number of genes encoding metabolic functions. Due to their small sizes, the genomes of organisms like Mycoplasma genitalium (580,000 base pairs), Chlamydia trachomatis (1.0 million), Rickettsia prowazekii (1.1 million), and Treponema pallidum (1.1 million) were some of the earlier bacterial genomes sequenced. Respectively, these
pathogens cause urethritis and pelvic inflammation, chlamydia, typhus, and syphilis.

Whereas obligate intracellular pathogens have unusually small genomes, other bacteria with a great variety of metabolic and enzymatic capabilities have unusually large bacterial genomes. Pseudomonas aeruginosa, for example, is a bacterium commonly found in the environment and is able to grow on a wide range of substrates.
Its genome contains 6.3 million base pairs, giving it a high metabolic ability and the ability to produce virulence factors that cause several types of opportunistic infections.

Interestingly, there has been significant variability in genome size in viruses as well, ranging from 3,500 base pairs to 2.5 million base pairs, significantly exceeding the size of many bacterial genomes. The great variation observed in viral genome sizes further contributes to the great diversity of viral genome characteristics already discussed.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: