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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Jul 3;114(27):E5414-E5423. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1619993114. Epub 2017 Jun 19.

A null model for microbial diversification.

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Department of Biological Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755.
Department of Biological Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755;
Department of Computer Science, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755.


Whether prokaryotes (Bacteria and Archaea) are naturally organized into phenotypically and genetically cohesive units comparable to animal or plant species remains contested, frustrating attempts to estimate how many such units there might be, or to identify the ecological roles they play. Analyses of gene sequences in various closely related prokaryotic groups reveal that sequence diversity is typically organized into distinct clusters, and processes such as periodic selection and extensive recombination are understood to be drivers of cluster formation ("speciation"). However, observed patterns are rarely compared with those obtainable with simple null models of diversification under stochastic lineage birth and death and random genetic drift. Via a combination of simulations and analyses of core and phylogenetic marker genes, we show that patterns of diversity for the genera Escherichia, Neisseria, and Borrelia are generally indistinguishable from patterns arising under a null model. We suggest that caution should thus be taken in interpreting observed clustering as a result of selective evolutionary forces. Unknown forces do, however, appear to play a role in Helicobacter pylori, and some individual genes in all groups fail to conform to the null model. Taken together, we recommend the presented birth-death model as a null hypothesis in prokaryotic speciation studies. It is only when the real data are statistically different from the expectations under the null model that some speciation process should be invoked.


bacterial species; genetic drift; neutral evolution; pathogen typing; prokaryotic diversity

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