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Open Access Open Badges Methodology article

Genome classification by gene distribution: An overlapping subspace clustering approach

Jason Li1, Saman K Halgamuge1 and Sen-Lin Tang2*

Author Affiliations

1 Bioinformatics Section, Biomechanical Engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering, the University of Melbourne, Australia

2 Research Center for Biodiversity, Academia Sinica, Taiwan

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:116  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-116

Published: 23 April 2008



Genomes of lower organisms have been observed with a large amount of horizontal gene transfers, which cause difficulties in their evolutionary study. Bacteriophage genomes are a typical example. One recent approach that addresses this problem is the unsupervised clustering of genomes based on gene order and genome position, which helps to reveal species relationships that may not be apparent from traditional phylogenetic methods.


We propose the use of an overlapping subspace clustering algorithm for such genome classification problems. The advantage of subspace clustering over traditional clustering is that it can associate clusters with gene arrangement patterns, preserving genomic information in the clusters produced. Additionally, overlapping capability is desirable for the discovery of multiple conserved patterns within a single genome, such as those acquired from different species via horizontal gene transfers. The proposed method involves a novel strategy to vectorize genomes based on their gene distribution. A number of existing subspace clustering and biclustering algorithms were evaluated to identify the best framework upon which to develop our algorithm; we extended a generic subspace clustering algorithm called HARP to incorporate overlapping capability. The proposed algorithm was assessed and applied on bacteriophage genomes. The phage grouping results are consistent overall with the Phage Proteomic Tree and showed common genomic characteristics among the TP901-like, Sfi21-like and sk1-like phage groups. Among 441 phage genomes, we identified four significantly conserved distribution patterns structured by the terminase, portal, integrase, holin and lysin genes. We also observed a subgroup of Sfi21-like phages comprising a distinctive divergent genome organization and identified nine new phage members to the Sfi21-like genus: Staphylococcus 71, phiPVL108, Listeria A118, 2389, Lactobacillus phi AT3, A2, Clostridium phi3626, Geobacillus GBSV1, and Listeria monocytogenes PSA.


The method described in this paper can assist evolutionary study through objectively classifying genomes based on their resemblance in gene order, gene content and gene positions. The method is suitable for application to genomes with high genetic exchange and various conserved gene arrangement, as demonstrated through our application on phages.