Horizontal Gene Transfer Phylogenetics: A Random Walk Approach

Gur Sevillya, Daniel Doerr, Yael Lerner, Jens Stoye, Mike Steel, Sagi Snir, Jeffrey Thorne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The dramatic decrease in time and cost for generating genetic sequence data has opened up vast opportunities in molecular systematics, one of which is the ability to decipher the evolutionary history of strains of a species. Under this fine systematic resolution, the standard markers are too crude to provide a phylogenetic signal. Nevertheless, among prokaryotes, genome dynamics in the form of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) between organisms and gene loss seem to provide far richer information by affecting both gene order and gene content. The "synteny index" (SI) between a pair of genomes combines these latter two factors, allowing comparison of genomes with unequal gene content, together with order considerations of their common genes. Although this approach is useful for classifying close relatives, no rigorous statistical modeling for it has been suggested. Such modeling is valuable, as it allows observed measures to be transformed into estimates of time periods during evolution, yielding the "additivity" of the measure. To the best of our knowledge, there is no other additivity proof for other gene order/content measures under HGT. Here, we provide a first statistical model and analysis for the SI measure. We model the "gene neighborhood" as a "birth-death-immigration" process affected by the HGT activity over the genome, and analytically relate the HGT rate and time to the expected SI. This model is asymptotic and thus provides accurate results, assuming infinite size genomes. Therefore, we also developed a heuristic model following an "exponential decay" function, accounting for biologically realistic values, which performed well in simulations. Applying this model to 1,133 prokaryotes partitioned to 39 clusters by the rank of genus yields that the average number of genome dynamics events per gene in the phylogenetic depth of genus is around half with significant variability between genera. This result extends and confirms similar results obtained for individual genera in different manners.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1470-1479
Number of pages10
JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 May 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 The Author(s). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution. All rights reserved.


  • Markovian processes
  • gene order
  • horizontal gene transfer
  • phylogenetics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology


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