Biodefense Bioinformatics Blog

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The net of life: reconstructing the microbial phylogenetic network

A new paper by Kunin et al. in Genome Research describes the reconstruction of phylogenetic networks for microbes. Understanding how microbes are related to one another will play an important role in biodefense.

Kunin V, Goldovsky L, Darzentas N, Ouzounis CA. The net of life: reconstructing the microbial phylogenetic network. Genome Res. 2005 Jul;15(7):954-9. [PubMed]


It has previously been suggested that the phylogeny of microbial species might be better described as a network containing vertical and horizontal gene transfer (HGT) events. Yet, all phylogenetic reconstructions so far have presented microbial trees rather than networks. Here, we present a first attempt to reconstruct such an evolutionary network, which we term the "net of life". We use available tree reconstruction methods to infer vertical inheritance, and use an ancestral state inference algorithm to map HGT events on the tree. We also describe a weighting scheme used to estimate the number of genes exchanged between pairs of organisms. We demonstrate that vertical inheritance constitutes the bulk of gene transfer on the tree of life. We term the bulk of horizontal gene flow between tree nodes as "vines", and demonstrate that multiple but mostly tiny vines interconnect the tree. Our results strongly suggest that the HGT network is a scale-free graph, a finding with important implications for genome evolution. We propose that genes might propagate extremely rapidly across microbial species through the HGT network, using certain organisms as hubs.