BACKGROUND: We introduce several forest-based and network-based methods for exploring microbial evolution, and apply them to the study of thousands of genes from 30 strains of E. coli. This case study illustrates how additional analyses could offer fast heuristic alternatives to standard tree of life (TOL) approaches.
RESULTS: We use gene networks to identify genes with atypical modes of evolution, and genome networks to characterize the evolution of genetic partnerships between E. coli and mobile genetic elements. We develop a novel polychromatic quartet method to capture patterns of recombination within E. coli, to update the clanistic toolkit, and to search for the impact of lateral gene transfer and of pathogenicity on gene evolution in two large forests of trees bearing E. coli. We unravel high rates of lateral gene transfer involving E. coli (about 40% of the trees under study), and show that both core genes and shell genes of E. coli are affected by non-tree-like evolutionary processes. We show that pathogenic lifestyle impacted the structure of 30% of the gene trees, and that pathogenic strains are more likely to transfer genes with one another than with non-pathogenic strains. In addition, we propose five groups of genes as candidate mobile modules of pathogenicity. We also present strong evidence for recent lateral gene transfer between E. coli and mobile genetic elements.
CONCLUSIONS: Depending on which evolutionary questions biologists want to address (i.e. the identification of modules, genetic partnerships, recombination, lateral gene transfer, or genes with atypical evolutionary modes, etc.), forest-based and network-based methods are preferable to the reconstruction of a single tree, because they provide insights and produce hypotheses about the dynamics of genome evolution, rather than the relative branching order of species and lineages. Such a methodological pluralism - the use of woods and webs - is to be encouraged to analyse the evolutionary processes at play in microbial evolution.This manuscript was reviewed by: Ford Doolittle, Tal Pupko, Richard Burian, James McInerney, Didier Raoult, and Yan Boucher.