Stochastic Models for Horizontal Gene Transfer: Taking a Random Walk through Tree Space

Article excerpt


Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) plays a critical role in evolution across all domains of life with important biological and medical implications. I propose a simple class of stochastic models to examine HGT using multiple orthologous gene alignments. The models function in a hierarchical phylogenetic framework. The top level of the hierarchy is based on a random walk process in "tree space" that allows for the development of a joint probabilistic distribution over multiple gene trees and an unknown, but estimable species tree. I consider two general forms of random walks. The first form is derived from the subtree prune and regraft (SPR) operator that mirrors the observed effects that HGT has on inferred trees. The second form is based on walks over complete graphs and offers numerically tractable solutions for an increasing number of taxa. The bottom level of the hierarchy utilizes standard phylogenetic models to reconstruct gene trees given multiple gene alignments conditional on the random walk process. I develop a well-mixing Markov chain Monte Carlo algorithm to fit the models in a Bayesian framework. I demonstrate the flexibility of these stochastic models to test competing ideas about HGT by examining the complexity hypothesis. Using 144 orthologous gene alignments from six prokaryotes previously collected and analyzed, Bayesian model selection finds support for (1) the SPR model over the alternative form, (2) the 16S rRNA reconstruction as the most likely species tree, and (3) increased HGT of operational genes compared to informational genes.

TRADITIONAL views of molecular evolution hold that genetic material mutates slowly over time as it is passed in a vertical fashion from parent to progeny. Molecular phylogenetics then aims to reconstruct this history of inheritance of genetic sequence data from contemporary organisms into a tree-like structure. However, belief in a single tree, mandated by vertical transmission, for all genetic material is changing. Evolutionary biologists increasingly recognize the horizontal transmission of genetic material between distantly related organisms as an important mechanism of evolution (SYVANEN 1994; LAWRENCE 1999; JAIN et al 2002).

The process of horizontal (or lateral) gene transfer (HGT) plays a critical role across all domains of life and in particular among prokaryotes QAIN et al. 1999; KOONIN et al. 2001). For example, many prokaryotes are agile at quickly adapting to new environments. Often, this ability stems from the acquisition of new genes through HGT rather than through random mutation (LAWRENCE 1999). At least three mechanisms promote HGT in prokaryotes QAIN et al. 2002). These include: (1) transformation in which free DNA sequences are absorbed from the environment, (2) conjugation between two different prokaryotic species, and (3) transduction of genetic material through viruses. Finally, HGT also has medical importance (BROWN 2003). In the field of infectious diseases, HGT among bacterial pathogens of antibiotic resistance genes has greatly contributed to the emergence of multidrug-resistant bacteria in clinical settings (LEVERSTEIN-VAN HALL et al. 2002). In the field of oncology, HGT may also affect tumor progression; BERGSMEDH et al. (2001) show that eukaryotic cells can transfer active oncogenes.

Three general methods have been employed to examine HGT. The first focuses on single genomes and identifies genes suspected to have been imported through HGT by examining variation in nucleotide base composition and codon usage patterns (LAWRENCE and OCHMAN, 1997). The latter two methods are comparative studies across species. One uses similarity approaches based on gene content to identify HGT (RAGAN 2001) and to propose average genome or species-level trees (SNEL et al. 1999), while the alternative method endorses phylogenetic reconstruction using orthologous genes (JAIN et al. 1999). Base composition and codon bias studies may perform poorly when compared to phylogenetic methods (KoSKi et al. …