Understanding how new genes originate and integrate into cellular networks is key to understanding evolution. Bacteria present unique opportunities for both the natural history and experimental study of gene origins, due to their large effective population sizes, rapid generation times, and ease of genetic manipulation. Bacterial small non-coding RNAs (sRNAs), in particular, many of which operate through a simple antisense regulatory logic, may serve as tractable models for exploring processes of gene origin and adaptation. Understanding how and on what timescales these regulatory molecules arise has important implications for understanding the evolution of bacterial regulatory networks, in particular, for the design of comparative studies of sRNA function. Here, we introduce relevant concepts from evolutionary biology and review recent work that has begun to shed light on the timescales and processes through which non-functional transcriptional noise is co-opted to provide regulatory functions. We explore possible scenarios for sRNA origin, focusing on the co-option, or exaptation, of existing genomic structures which may provide protected spaces for sRNA evolution.

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