Open Access Research

The transferome of metabolic genes explored: analysis of the horizontal transfer of enzyme encoding genes in unicellular eukaryotes

John W Whitaker, Glenn A McConkey and David R Westhead*

Author affiliations

Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of Leeds, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS2 9JT, UK

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Citation and License

Genome Biology 2009, 10:R36  doi:10.1186/gb-2009-10-4-r36

Published: 15 April 2009



Metabolic networks are responsible for many essential cellular processes, and exhibit a high level of evolutionary conservation from bacteria to eukaryotes. If genes encoding metabolic enzymes are horizontally transferred and are advantageous, they are likely to become fixed. Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) has played a key role in prokaryotic evolution and its importance in eukaryotes is increasingly evident. High levels of endosymbiotic gene transfer (EGT) accompanied the establishment of plastids and mitochondria, and more recent events have allowed further acquisition of bacterial genes. Here, we present the first comprehensive multi-species analysis of E/HGT of genes encoding metabolic enzymes from bacteria to unicellular eukaryotes.


The phylogenetic trees of 2,257 metabolic enzymes were used to make E/HGT assertions in ten groups of unicellular eukaryotes, revealing the sources and metabolic processes of the transferred genes. Analyses revealed a preference for enzymes encoded by genes gained through horizontal and endosymbiotic transfers to be connected in the metabolic network. Enrichment in particular functional classes was particularly revealing: alongside plastid related processes and carbohydrate metabolism, this highlighted a number of pathways in eukaryotic parasites that are rich in enzymes encoded by transferred genes, and potentially key to pathogenicity. The plant parasites Phytophthora were discovered to have a potential pathway for lipopolysaccharide biosynthesis of E/HGT origin not seen before in eukaryotes outside the Plantae.


The number of enzymes encoded by genes gained through E/HGT has been established, providing insight into functional gain during the evolution of unicellular eukaryotes. In eukaryotic parasites, genes encoding enzymes that have been gained through horizontal transfer may be attractive drug targets if they are part of processes not present in the host, or are significantly diverged from equivalent host enzymes.