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Open Access Methodology article

A phylogenomic approach to bacterial subspecies classification: proof of concept in Mycobacterium abscessus

Joon Liang Tan34, Tsung Fei Khang2*, Yun Fong Ngeow3 and Siew Woh Choo14*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Oral Biology and Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Dentistry, University of Malaya, 50603, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

2 Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Faculty of Science, University of Malaya, 50603, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

3 Department of Medical Microbiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya, 50603, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

4 Genome Informatics Research Laboratory, High Impact Research (HIR) Building, University of Malaya, 50603, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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BMC Genomics 2013, 14:879  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-14-879

Published: 13 December 2013



Mycobacterium abscessus is a rapidly growing mycobacterium that is often associated with human infections. The taxonomy of this species has undergone several revisions and is still being debated. In this study, we sequenced the genomes of 12‚ÄČM. abscessus strains and used phylogenomic analysis to perform subspecies classification.


A data mining approach was used to rank and select informative genes based on the relative entropy metric for the construction of a phylogenetic tree. The resulting tree topology was similar to that generated using the concatenation of five classical housekeeping genes: rpoB, hsp65, secA, recA and sodA. Additional support for the reliability of the subspecies classification came from the analysis of erm41 and ITS gene sequences, single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)-based classification and strain clustering demonstrated by a variable number tandem repeat (VNTR) assay and a multilocus sequence analysis (MLSA). We subsequently found that the concatenation of a minimal set of three median-ranked genes: DNA polymerase III subunit alpha (polC), 4-hydroxy-2-ketovalerate aldolase (Hoa) and cell division protein FtsZ (ftsZ), is sufficient to recover the same tree topology. PCR assays designed specifically for these genes showed that all three genes could be amplified in the reference strain of M. abscessus ATCC 19977T.


This study provides proof of concept that whole-genome sequence-based data mining approach can provide confirmatory evidence of the phylogenetic informativeness of existing markers, as well as lead to the discovery of a more economical and informative set of markers that produces similar subspecies classification in M. abscessus. The systematic procedure used in this study to choose the informative minimal set of gene markers can potentially be applied to species or subspecies classification of other bacteria.