Using Genetrace, Christos Ouzounis and colleagues at EBI (European Bioinformatics Institute) were able to construct a microbial evolutionary diagram that shows the exchange of genetic material across distant species.
Since the time of Darwin, the evolutionary relationships between organisms have been represented as a tree, with the common ancestors at the base of the trunk and the most recently evolved species at the tips of the branches. Microbiologists have argued for a long time that this representation doesn’t really hold true for microbes, which often exchange genes among different species. Their claim has been that the evolution of these organisms is better represented by a net.[Press Release] (pdf)
To get a grip on horizontal gene transfer, they used a method called GeneTrace, previously developed by Victor and Christos. GeneTrace infers horizontal transfer from the patchy presence of a gene family in distantly related organisms. The data generated by GeneTrace allowed them to draw ‘vines’, representing horizontal-genetransfer events, connecting branches on the evolutionary tree. In all, more than 600,000 vertical transfers are observed, coupled with 90,000 gene loss events and approximately 40,000 horizontal gene transfers. Thus, although the distribution of most of the gene families present today can be explained by the classical theory of evolution by descent, anomalies of these patterns are revealed by the ‘minority report’ of horizontal exchange.