Background: Lateral genetic transfer can lead to disagreements among phylogenetic trees comprising sequences from the same set of taxa. Where topological discordance is thought to have arisen through genetic transfer events, tree comparisons can be used to identify the lineages that may have shared genetic information. An 'edit path' of one or more transfer events can be represented with a series of subtree prune and regraft (SPR) operations, but finding the optimal such set of operations is NP-hard for comparisons between rooted trees, and may be so for unrooted trees as well.
Results: Efficient Evaluation of Edit Paths (EEEP) is a new tree comparison algorithm that uses evolutionarily reasonable constraints to identify and eliminate many unproductive search avenues, reducing the time required to solve many edit path problems. The performance of EEEP compares favourably to that of other algorithms when applied to strictly bifurcating trees with specified numbers of SPR operations. We also used EEEP to recover edit paths from over 19,000 unrooted, incompletely resolved protein trees containing up to 144 taxa as part of a large phylogenomic study. While inferred protein trees were far more similar to a reference supertree than random trees were to each other, the phylogenetic distance spanned by random versus inferred transfer events was similar, suggesting that real transfer events occur most frequently between closely related organisms, but can span large phylogenetic distances as well. While most of the protein trees examined here were very similar to the reference supertree, requiring zero or one edit operations for reconciliation, some trees implied up to 40 transfer events within a single orthologous set of proteins.
Conclusion: Since sequence trees typically have no implied root and may contain unresolved or multifurcating nodes, the strategy implemented in EEEP is the most appropriate for phylogenomic analyses. The high degree of consistency among inferred protein trees shows that vertical inheritance is the dominant pattern of evolution, at least for the set of organisms considered here. However, the edit paths inferred using EEEP suggest an important role for genetic transfer in the evolution of microbial genomes as well.