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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Phylogenetic detection of horizontal gene transfer during the step-wise genesis of Mycobacterium tuberculosis

Frédéric Veyrier, Daniel Pletzer, Christine Turenne and Marcel A Behr*

Author Affiliations

Department of Medicine, McGill University, Montreal, QC, H3G 1A4, Canada

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:196  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-196

Published: 10 August 2009



In the past decade, the availability of complete genome sequence data has greatly facilitated comparative genomic research aimed at addressing genetic variability within species. More recently, analysis across species has become feasible, especially in genera where genome sequencing projects of multiple species have been initiated. To understand the genesis of the pathogen Mycobacterium tuberculosis within a genus where the majority of species are harmless environmental organisms, we have used genome sequence data from 16 mycobacteria to look for evidence of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) associated with the emergence of pathogenesis. First, using multi-locus sequence analysis (MLSA) of 20 housekeeping genes across these species, we derived a phylogeny that serves as the basis for HGT assignments. Next, we performed alignment searches for the 3989 proteins of M. tuberculosis H37Rv against 15 other mycobacterial genomes, generating a matrix of 59835 comparisons, to look for genetic elements that were uniquely found in M. tuberculosis and closely-related pathogenic mycobacteria. To assign when foreign genes were likely acquired, we designed a bioinformatic program called mycoHIT (mycobacterial homologue investigation tool) to analyze these data in conjunction with the MLSA-based phylogeny.


The bioinformatic screen predicted that 137 genes had been acquired by HGT at different phylogenetic strata; these included genes coding for metabolic functions and modification of mycobacterial lipids. For the majority of these genes, corroborating evidence of HGT was obtained, such as presence of phage or plasmid, and an aberrant GC%.


M. tuberculosis emerged through vertical inheritance along with the step-wise addition of genes acquired via HGT events, a process that may more generally describe the evolution of other pathogens.