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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Estimating the extent of horizontal gene transfer in metagenomic sequences

Javier Tamames12* and Andrés Moya12

Author Affiliations

1 Instituto Cavanilles de Biodiversidad y Biología Evolutiva. Universidad de Valencia. Polígono La Coma s/n, 46980 Paterna (Valencia), Spain

2 CIBER en Epidemiología y Salud Pública (CIBER-ESP), Spain

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BMC Genomics 2008, 9:136  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-9-136

Published: 24 March 2008

Abstract

Background

Although the extent of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) in complete genomes has been widely studied, its influence in the evolution of natural communities of prokaryotes remains unknown. The availability of metagenomic sequences allows us to address the study of global patterns of prokaryotic evolution in samples from natural communities. However, the methods that have been commonly used for the study of HGT are not suitable for metagenomic samples. Therefore it is important to develop new methods or to adapt existing ones to be used with metagenomic sequences.

Results

We have created two different methods that are suitable for the study of HGT in metagenomic samples. The methods are based on phylogenetic and DNA compositional approaches, and have allowed us to assess the extent of possible HGT events in metagenomes for the first time. The methods are shown to be compatible and quite precise, although they probably underestimate the number of possible events. Our results show that the phylogenetic method detects HGT in between 0.8% and 1.5% of the sequences, while DNA compositional methods identify putative HGT in between 2% and 8% of the sequences. These ranges are very similar to these found in complete genomes by related approaches. Both methods act with a different sensitivity since they probably target HGT events of different ages: the compositional method mostly identifies recent transfers, while the phylogenetic is more suitable for the detections of older events. Nevertheless, the study of the number of HGT events in metagenomic sequences from different communities shows a consistent trend for both methods: the lower amount is found for the sequences of the Sargasso Sea metagenome, while the higher quantity is found in the whale fall metagenome from the bottom of the ocean. The significance of these observations is discussed.

Conclusion

The computational approaches that are used to find possible HGT events in complete genomes can be adapted to work with metagenomic samples, where a level of high performance is shown in different metagenomic samples. The percentage of possible HGT events that were observed is close to that found for complete genomes, and different microbiomes show diverse ratios of putative HGT events. This is probably related with both environmental factors and the composition in the species of each particular community.