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The hidden universal distribution of amino acid biosynthetic networks: a genomic perspective on their origins and evolution

Georgina Hernández-Montes1, J Javier Díaz-Mejía12, Ernesto Pérez-Rueda1 and Lorenzo Segovia1*

Author affiliations

1 Departamento de Ingeniería Celular y Biocatálisis, Instituto de Biotecnología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Av. Universidad, Col. Chamilpa, Cuernavaca, Morelos, México, CP 62210

2 Department of Biology, Wilfrid Laurier University, University Av. Waterloo, ON N2L 3C5, Canada; and Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, University of Toronto. College St., Toronto, ON M5S 3E1, Canada

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Citation and License

Genome Biology 2008, 9:R95  doi:10.1186/gb-2008-9-6-r95

Published: 9 June 2008



Twenty amino acids comprise the universal building blocks of proteins. However, their biosynthetic routes do not appear to be universal from an Escherichia coli-centric perspective. Nevertheless, it is necessary to understand their origin and evolution in a global context, that is, to include more 'model' species and alternative routes in order to do so. We use a comparative genomics approach to assess the origins and evolution of alternative amino acid biosynthetic network branches.


By tracking the taxonomic distribution of amino acid biosynthetic enzymes, we predicted a core of widely distributed network branches biosynthesizing at least 16 out of the 20 standard amino acids, suggesting that this core occurred in ancient cells, before the separation of the three cellular domains of life. Additionally, we detail the distribution of two types of alternative branches to this core: analogs, enzymes that catalyze the same reaction (using the same metabolites) and belong to different superfamilies; and 'alternologs', herein defined as branches that, proceeding via different metabolites, converge to the same end product. We suggest that the origin of alternative branches is closely related to different environmental metabolite sources and life-styles among species.


The multi-organismal seed strategy employed in this work improves the precision of dating and determining evolutionary relationships among amino acid biosynthetic branches. This strategy could be extended to diverse metabolic routes and even other biological processes. Additionally, we introduce the concept of 'alternolog', which not only plays an important role in the relationships between structure and function in biological networks, but also, as shown here, has strong implications for their evolution, almost equal to paralogy and analogy.