Summary: Metagenomics, fruit flies, and lessons learned

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On November 8th, Nature published two cool articles about metagenomic studies of twelve Drosophila (“fruit flies”) species. In the the first paper (click here), The Drosophila 12 Genomes Consortium (D12GG) compared the complete genomic sequences of the twelve Drosophila species, which included the model organism species Drosophila Melanogaster. Although the twelve species are related, they exhibit a surprising amount genetic biodiversity. For example, the evolutionary distance between D. Grimshawi and D. Melanogaster is the same distance as between humans and lizards. As a side note, six months earlier (in May 2007), PLoS Genetics published a similar metagenomic comparison of Drosophila (click here for the paper). In the PLoS paper, Hahn et al. present the (somewhat obvious) conclusion: “the apparent stasis in total gene number among species has masked rapid turnover in individual gene gain and loss.”

On November 8, Nature also published this paper (click here), in which Stark et al. (including Hahn) used the data from D12GG’s research to demonstrate a truly novel insight about the connection between conserved metagenomic sequence motifs and functional elements. The result of this paper allows us to infer the presence of functional elements with a accuracy far surpassing previous methods. Specifically, Stark et al. show how to infer the following functional elements, based on a metagenomic sample:

  • Protein-coding regions: have highly constrained condon substitution regions, and indels have a bias for multiples of three.
  • RNA genes: tolerate substitutions that preserve base pairing.
  • miRNA: can be detected by looking for conserved palindromic stem sequences, which mutable loop sub-sequences between the two palindrome pieces.
  • Regulatory motifs: have high levels of genome-wide conservation.
  • Post-transcriptional motifs: are typically strand-based conservations.
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