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1.  The public goods hypothesis for the evolution of life on Earth 
Biology Direct  2011;6:41.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile the observed extent of horizontal gene transfers with the central metaphor of a great tree uniting all evolving entities on the planet. In this manuscript we describe the Public Goods Hypothesis and show that it is appropriate in order to describe biological evolution on the planet. According to this hypothesis, nucleotide sequences (genes, promoters, exons, etc.) are simply seen as goods, passed from organism to organism through both vertical and horizontal transfer. Public goods sequences are defined by having the properties of being largely non-excludable (no organism can be effectively prevented from accessing these sequences) and non-rival (while such a sequence is being used by one organism it is also available for use by another organism). The universal nature of genetic systems ensures that such non-excludable sequences exist and non-excludability explains why we see a myriad of genes in different combinations in sequenced genomes. There are three features of the public goods hypothesis. Firstly, segments of DNA are seen as public goods, available for all organisms to integrate into their genomes. Secondly, we expect the evolution of mechanisms for DNA sharing and of defense mechanisms against DNA intrusion in genomes. Thirdly, we expect that we do not see a global tree-like pattern. Instead, we expect local tree-like patterns to emerge from the combination of a commonage of genes and vertical inheritance of genomes by cell division. Indeed, while genes are theoretically public goods, in reality, some genes are excludable, particularly, though not only, when they have variant genetic codes or behave as coalition or club goods, available for all organisms of a coalition to integrate into their genomes, and non-rival within the club. We view the Tree of Life hypothesis as a regionalized instance of the Public Goods hypothesis, just like classical mechanics and euclidean geometry are seen as regionalized instances of quantum mechanics and Riemannian geometry respectively. We argue for this change using an axiomatic approach that shows that the Public Goods hypothesis is a better accommodation of the observed data than the Tree of Life hypothesis.
PMCID: PMC3179745  PMID: 21861918
2.  Of woods and webs: possible alternatives to the tree of life for studying genomic fluidity in E. coli 
Biology Direct  2011;6:39.
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.
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.
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
PMCID: PMC3160433  PMID: 21774799
E. coli; trees; networks; quartets; lateral gene transfer; methodological pluralism
3.  Some considerations for analyzing biodiversity using integrative metagenomics and gene networks 
Biology Direct  2010;5:47.
Improving knowledge of biodiversity will benefit conservation biology, enhance bioremediation studies, and could lead to new medical treatments. However there is no standard approach to estimate and to compare the diversity of different environments, or to study its past, and possibly, future evolution.
Presentation of the hypothesis
We argue that there are two conditions for significant progress in the identification and quantification of biodiversity. First, integrative metagenomic studies - aiming at the simultaneous examination (or even better at the integration) of observations about the elements, functions and evolutionary processes captured by the massive sequencing of multiple markers - should be preferred over DNA barcoding projects and over metagenomic projects based on a single marker. Second, such metagenomic data should be studied with novel inclusive network-based approaches, designed to draw inferences both on the many units and on the many processes present in the environments.
Testing the hypothesis
We reached these conclusions through a comparison of the theoretical foundations of two molecular approaches seeking to assess biodiversity: metagenomics (mostly used on prokaryotes and protists) and DNA barcoding (mostly used on multicellular eukaryotes), and by pragmatic considerations of the issues caused by the 'species problem' in biodiversity studies.
Implications of the hypothesis
Evolutionary gene networks reduce the risk of producing biodiversity estimates with limited explanatory power, biased either by unequal rates of LGT, or difficult to interpret due to (practical) problems caused by type I and type II grey zones. Moreover, these networks would easily accommodate additional (meta)transcriptomic and (meta)proteomic data.
This article was reviewed by Pr. William Martin, Dr. David Williams (nominated by Pr. J Peter Gogarten) & Dr. James McInerney (nominated by Pr. John Logsdon).
PMCID: PMC2921367  PMID: 20673351
4.  Prokaryotic evolution and the tree of life are two different things 
Biology Direct  2009;4:34.
The concept of a tree of life is prevalent in the evolutionary literature. It stems from attempting to obtain a grand unified natural system that reflects a recurrent process of species and lineage splittings for all forms of life. Traditionally, the discipline of systematics operates in a similar hierarchy of bifurcating (sometimes multifurcating) categories. The assumption of a universal tree of life hinges upon the process of evolution being tree-like throughout all forms of life and all of biological time. In multicellular eukaryotes, the molecular mechanisms and species-level population genetics of variation do indeed mainly cause a tree-like structure over time. In prokaryotes, they do not. Prokaryotic evolution and the tree of life are two different things, and we need to treat them as such, rather than extrapolating from macroscopic life to prokaryotes. In the following we will consider this circumstance from philosophical, scientific, and epistemological perspectives, surmising that phylogeny opted for a single model as a holdover from the Modern Synthesis of evolution.
It was far easier to envision and defend the concept of a universal tree of life before we had data from genomes. But the belief that prokaryotes are related by such a tree has now become stronger than the data to support it. The monistic concept of a single universal tree of life appears, in the face of genome data, increasingly obsolete. This traditional model to describe evolution is no longer the most scientifically productive position to hold, because of the plurality of evolutionary patterns and mechanisms involved. Forcing a single bifurcating scheme onto prokaryotic evolution disregards the non-tree-like nature of natural variation among prokaryotes and accounts for only a minority of observations from genomes.
Prokaryotic evolution and the tree of life are two different things. Hence we will briefly set out alternative models to the tree of life to study their evolution. Ultimately, the plurality of evolutionary patterns and mechanisms involved, such as the discontinuity of the process of evolution across the prokaryote-eukaryote divide, summons forth a pluralistic approach to studying evolution.
This article was reviewed by Ford Doolittle, John Logsdon and Nicolas Galtier.
PMCID: PMC2761302  PMID: 19788731
5.  Refuting phylogenetic relationships 
Biology Direct  2006;1:26.
Phylogenetic methods are philosophically grounded, and so can be philosophically biased in ways that limit explanatory power. This constitutes an important methodologic dimension not often taken into account. Here we address this dimension in the context of concatenation approaches to phylogeny.
We discuss some of the limits of a methodology restricted to verificationism, the philosophy on which gene concatenation practices generally rely. As an alternative, we describe a software which identifies and focuses on impossible or refuted relationships, through a simple analysis of bootstrap bipartitions, followed by multivariate statistical analyses. We show how refuting phylogenetic relationships could in principle facilitate systematics. We also apply our method to the study of two complex phylogenies: the phylogeny of the archaea and the phylogeny of the core of genes shared by all life forms. While many groups are rejected, our results left open a possible proximity of N. equitans and the Methanopyrales, of the Archaea and the Cyanobacteria, and as well the possible grouping of the Methanobacteriales/Methanoccocales and Thermosplasmatales, of the Spirochaetes and the Actinobacteria and of the Proteobacteria and firmicutes.
It is sometimes easier (and preferable) to decide which species do not group together than which ones do. When possible topologies are limited, identifying local relationships that are rejected may be a useful alternative to classical concatenation approaches aiming to find a globally resolved tree on the basis of weak phylogenetic markers.
This article was reviewed by Mark Ragan, Eugene V Koonin and J Peter Gogarten.
PMCID: PMC1574289  PMID: 16956399

Results 1-5 (5)