Background: Although capable to evolve, viruses are generally considered non-living entities because they are acellular and devoid of metabolism. However, the recent publication of the genome sequence of the Mimivirus, a giant virus that parasitises amoebas, strengthened the idea that viruses should be included in the tree of life. In fact, the first phylogenetic analyses of a few Mimivirus genes that are also present in cellular lineages suggested that it could define an independent branch in the tree of life in addition to the three domains, Bacteria, Archaea and Eucarya.
Results: We tested this hypothesis by carrying out detailed phylogenetic analyses for all the conserved Mimivirus genes that have homologues in cellular organisms. We found no evidence supporting Mimivirus as a new branch in the tree of life. On the contrary, our phylogenetic trees strongly suggest that Mimivirus acquired most of these genes by horizontal gene transfer (HGT) either from its amoebal hosts or from bacteria that parasitise the same hosts. The detection of HGT events involving different eukaryotic donors suggests that the spectrum of hosts of Mimivirus may be larger than currently known.
Conclusion: The large number of genes acquired by Mimivirus from eukaryotic and bacterial sources suggests that HGT has been an important process in the evolution of its genome and the adaptation to parasitism.