Prokaryotic CRISPR-Cas (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated genes) systems provide adaptive immunity from invasive genetic elements and encompass three essential features: (i) cas genes, (ii) a CRISPR array composed of spacers and direct repeats and (iii) an AT-rich leader sequence upstream of the array. We performed in-depth sequence analysis of the CRISPR-Cas systems in >600 Salmonella, representing four clinically prevalent serovars. Each CRISPR-Cas feature is extremely conserved in the Salmonella, and the CRISPR1 locus is more highly conserved than CRISPR2. Array composition is serovar-specific, although no convincing evidence of recent spacer acquisition against exogenous nucleic acids exists. Only 12 % of spacers match phage and plasmid sequences and self-targeting spacers are associated with direct repeat variants. High nucleotide identity (>99.9 %) exists across the cas operon among isolates of a single serovar and in some cases this conservation extends across divergent serovars. These observations reflect historical CRISPR-Cas immune activity, showing that this locus has ceased undergoing adaptive events. Intriguingly, the high level of conservation across divergent serovars shows that the genetic integrity of these inactive loci is maintained over time, contrasting with the canonical view that inactive CRISPR loci degenerate over time. This thorough characterization of Salmonella CRISPR-Cas systems presents new insights into Salmonella CRISPR evolution, particularly with respect to cas gene conservation, leader sequences, organization of direct repeats and protospacer matches. Collectively, our data suggest that Salmonella CRISPR-Cas systems are no longer immunogenic; rather, their impressive conservation indicates they may have an alternative function in Salmonella.
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