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Mol Biol Evol. 2011 Feb;28(2):1057-74. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msq297. Epub 2010 Nov 8.

Networks of gene sharing among 329 proteobacterial genomes reveal differences in lateral gene transfer frequency at different phylogenetic depths.

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Institute of Botany III, Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, Germany.


Lateral gene transfer (LGT) is an important mechanism of natural variation among prokaryotes. Over the full course of evolution, most or all of the genes resident in a given prokaryotic genome have been affected by LGT, yet the frequency of LGT can vary greatly across genes and across prokaryotic groups. The proteobacteria are among the most diverse of prokaryotic taxa. The prevalence of LGT in their genome evolution calls for the application of network-based methods instead of tree-based methods to investigate the relationships among these species. Here, we report networks that capture both vertical and horizontal components of evolutionary history among 1,207,272 proteins distributed across 329 sequenced proteobacterial genomes. The network of shared proteins reveals modularity structure that does not correspond to current classification schemes. On the basis of shared protein-coding genes, the five classes of proteobacteria fall into two main modules, one including the alpha-, delta-, and epsilonproteobacteria and the other including beta- and gammaproteobacteria. The first module is stable over different protein identity thresholds. The second shows more plasticity with regard to the sequence conservation of proteins sampled, with the gammaproteobacteria showing the most chameleon-like evolutionary characteristics within the present sample. Using a minimal lateral network approach, we compared LGT rates at different phylogenetic depths. In general, gene evolution by LGT within proteobacteria is very common. At least one LGT event was inferred to have occurred in at least 75% of the protein families. The average LGT rate at the species and class depth is about one LGT event per protein family, the rate doubling at the phylum level to an average of two LGT events per protein family. Hence, our results indicate that the rate of gene acquisition per protein family is similar at the level of species (by recombination) and at the level of classes (by LGT). The frequency of LGT per genome strongly depends on the species lifestyle, with endosymbionts showing far lower LGT frequencies than free-living species. Moreover, the nature of the transferred genes suggests that gene transfer in proteobacteria is frequently mediated by conjugation.

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