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RNA. 2010 Aug;16(8):1469-77. doi: 10.1261/rna.726010. Epub 2010 Jun 17.

Stable tRNA-based phylogenies using only 76 nucleotides.

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Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309, USA


tRNAs are among the most ancient, highly conserved sequences on earth, but are often thought to be poor phylogenetic markers because they are short, often subject to horizontal gene transfer, and easily change specificity. Here we use an algorithm now commonly used in microbial ecology, UniFrac, to cluster 175 genomes spanning all three domains of life based on the phylogenetic relationships among their complete tRNA pools. We find that the overall pattern of similarities and differences in the tRNA pools recaptures universal phylogeny to a remarkable extent, and that the resulting tree is similar to the distribution of bootstrapped rRNA trees from the same genomes. In contrast, the trees derived from tRNAs of identical specificity or of individual isoacceptors generally produced trees of lower quality. However, some tRNA isoacceptors were very good predictors of the overall pattern of organismal evolution. These results show that UniFrac can extract meaningful biological patterns from even phylogenies with high level of statistical inaccuracy and horizontal gene transfer, and that, overall, the pattern of tRNA evolution tracks universal phylogeny and provides a background against which we can test hypotheses about the evolution of individual isoacceptors.

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