Unifying themes in microbial associations with animal and plant hosts described using the gene ontology

Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. 2010 Dec;74(4):479-503. doi: 10.1128/MMBR.00017-10.


Microbes form intimate relationships with hosts (symbioses) that range from mutualism to parasitism. Common microbial mechanisms involved in a successful host association include adhesion, entry of the microbe or its effector proteins into the host cell, mitigation of host defenses, and nutrient acquisition. Genes associated with these microbial mechanisms are known for a broad range of symbioses, revealing both divergent and convergent strategies. Effective comparisons among these symbioses, however, are hampered by inconsistent descriptive terms in the literature for functionally similar genes. Bioinformatic approaches that use homology-based tools are limited to identifying functionally similar genes based on similarities in their sequences. An effective solution to these limitations is provided by the Gene Ontology (GO), which provides a standardized language to describe gene products from all organisms. The GO comprises three ontologies that enable one to describe the molecular function(s) of gene products, the biological processes to which they contribute, and their cellular locations. Beginning in 2004, the Plant-Associated Microbe Gene Ontology (PAMGO) interest group collaborated with the GO consortium to extend the GO to accommodate terms for describing gene products associated with microbe-host interactions. Currently, over 900 terms that describe biological processes common to diverse plant- and animal-associated microbes are incorporated into the GO database. Here we review some unifying themes common to diverse host-microbe associations and illustrate how the new GO terms facilitate a standardized description of the gene products involved. We also highlight areas where new terms need to be developed, an ongoing process that should involve the whole community.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena*
  • Cell Adhesion
  • Computational Biology / methods*
  • Fungi / genetics
  • Fungi / metabolism
  • Fungi / physiology*
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions / genetics
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions / immunology
  • Plants / immunology
  • Plants / microbiology*
  • Protein Transport
  • Symbiosis* / genetics
  • Symbiosis* / immunology
  • Virulence Factors


  • Virulence Factors