BACKGROUND: Actinobacteria have adapted to contrasted ecological niches such as the soil, and among others to plants or animals as pathogens or symbionts. Mycobacterium genus contains mostly pathogens that cause a variety of mammalian diseases, among which the well-known leprosy and tuberculosis, it also has saprophytic relatives. Streptomyces genus is mostly a soil microbe known for its secondary metabolites, it contains also plant pathogens, animal pathogens and symbionts. Frankia, a nitrogen-fixing actinobacterium establishes a root symbiosis with dicotyledonous pionneer plants. Pathogens and symbionts live inside eukaryotic cells and tissues and interact with their cellular environment through secreted proteins and effectors transported through transmembrane systems; nevertheless they also need to avoid triggering host defense reactions. A comparative genome analysis of the secretomes of symbionts and pathogens allows a thorough investigation of selective pressures shaping their evolution. In the present study, the rates of silent mutations to non-silent mutations in secretory proteins were assessed in different strains of Frankia, Streptomyces and Mycobacterium, of which several genomes have recently become publicly available. RESULTS: It was found that secreted proteins as a whole have a stronger purifying evolutionary rate (non-synonymous to synonymous substitutions or Ka/Ks ratio) than the non-secretory proteins in most of the studied genomes. This difference becomes statistically significant in cases involving obligate symbionts and pathogens. Amongst the Frankia, secretomes of symbiotic strains were found to have undergone evolutionary trends different from those of the mainly saprophytic strains. Even within the secretory proteins, the signal peptide part has a higher Ka/Ks ratio than the mature part. Two contrasting trends were noticed amongst the Frankia genomes regarding the relation between selection strength (i.e. Ka/Ks ratio) and the codon adaptation index (CAI), a predictor of the expression rate, in all the genes belonging to the core genome as well as the core secretory protein genes. The genomes of pathogenic Mycobacterium and Streptomyces also had reduced secretomes relative to saprophytes, as well as in general significant pairwise Ka/Ks ratios in their secretomes. CONCLUSION: In marginally free-living facultative symbionts or pathogenic organisms under consideration, secretory protein genes as a whole evolve at a faster rate than the rest and this process may be an adaptive life-strategy to counter the host selection pressure. The higher evolutionary rate of signal peptide part compared to mature protein provides an indication that signal peptide parts may be under relaxed purifying selection, indicative of the signal peptides not being secreted into host cells. Codon usage analysis suggests that in actinobacterial strains under host selection pressure such as symbiotic Frankia, ACN, FD and the pathogenic Mycobacterium, codon usage bias was negatively correlated to the selective pressure exerted on the secretory protein genes.