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Open Access Research

Evolution of gene fusions: horizontal transfer versus independent events

Itai Yanai1, Yuri I Wolf2 and Eugene V Koonin2*

Author Affiliations

1 Bioinformatics Graduate Program and Department of Biomedical Engineering, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, USA

2 National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MA 20894, USA

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Genome Biology 2002, 3:research0024-research0024.13  doi:10.1186/gb-2002-3-5-research0024

Published: 26 April 2002

Abstract

Background

Gene fusions can be used as tools for functional prediction and also as evolutionary markers. Fused genes often show a scattered phyletic distribution, which suggests a role for processes other than vertical inheritance in their evolution.

Results

The evolutionary history of gene fusions was studied by phylogenetic analysis of the domains in the fused proteins and the orthologous domains that form stand-alone proteins. Clustering of fusion components from phylogenetically distant species was construed as evidence of dissemination of the fused genes by horizontal transfer. Of the 51 examined gene fusions that are represented in at least two of the three primary kingdoms (Bacteria, Archaea and Eukaryota), 31 were most probably disseminated by cross-kingdom horizontal gene transfer, whereas 14 appeared to have evolved independently in different kingdoms and two were probably inherited from the common ancestor of modern life forms. On many occasions, the evolutionary scenario also involves one or more secondary fissions of the fusion gene. For approximately half of the fusions, stand-alone forms of the fusion components are encoded by juxtaposed genes, which are known or predicted to belong to the same operon in some of the prokaryotic genomes. This indicates that evolution of gene fusions often, if not always, involves an intermediate stage, during which the future fusion components exist as juxtaposed and co-regulated, but still distinct, genes within operons.

Conclusion

These findings suggest a major role for horizontal transfer of gene fusions in the evolution of protein-domain architectures, but also indicate that independent fusions of the same pair of domains in distant species is not uncommon, which suggests positive selection for the multidomain architectures.