Background: DNA sequences that are shared between closely related organisms while being absent from their common ancestor and from sister lineages of that ancestor are likely to have been acquired by horizontal gene transfer. Over time, the composition of those sequences tends to become more similar to the compositional signature of their host (amelioration).
Results: From a whole-genome comparative analysis of eleven Salmonella, three Escherichia coli and one Shigella strain, we inferred the relative time of insertion of putative horizontally acquired (PHA) genes in three Salmonella strains on different branches of the S. enterica phylogenetic tree. Compositional analysis suggests that most of the PHA genes are still undergoing an amelioration process and shows a clear correlation between time of insertion and the level of amelioration.
Conclusion: The results show that older insertions include almost all functional classes. However, very recent horizontal transfer events in the Salmonella lineage involve primarily prophage elements that are shared only between very recently diverged lineages; despite this, the prophage sequence composition is close to that of the host, indicating that host adaptation, rather than amelioration, is likely to be the source of the compositional similarity. Almost half of the PHA genes were acquired at the base of the Salmonella lineage, whereas nearly three-quarters are shared between most S. enterica subspecies. The numerical distribution of PHA genes in the Salmonella tree topology correlates well with the divergence of the major Salmonella species, highlighting the major impact of horizontal transfer on the evolution of the salmonellae.