Exclusivity offers a sound yet practical species criterion for bacteria despite abundant gene flow
The question of whether bacterial species objectively exist has long divided microbiologists. A major source of contention stems from the fact that bacteria regularly engage in horizontal gene transfer (HGT), making it difficult to ascertain relatedness and draw boundaries between taxa. A natural way to define taxa is based on exclusivity of relatedness, which applies when members of a taxon are more closely related to each other than they are to any outsider. It is largely unknown whether exclusive bacterial taxa exist when averaging over the genome or are rare due to rampant hybridization.
Here, we analyze a collection of 701 genomes representing a wide variety of environmental isolates from the family Streptomycetaceae, whose members are competent at HGT. We find that the presence/absence of auxiliary genes in the pan-genome displays a hierarchical (tree-like) structure that correlates significantly with the genealogy of the core-genome. Moreover, we identified the existence of many exclusive taxa, although individual genes often contradict these taxa. These conclusions were supported by repeating the analysis on 1,586 genomes belonging to the genus Bacillus. However, despite confirming the existence of exclusive groups (taxa), we were unable to identify an objective threshold at which to assign the rank of species.
The existence of bacterial taxa is justified by considering average relatedness across the entire genome, as captured by exclusivity, but is rejected if one requires unanimous agreement of all parts of the genome. We propose using exclusivity to delimit taxa and conventional genome similarity thresholds to assign bacterial taxa to the species rank. This approach recognizes species that are phylogenetically meaningful, while also establishing some degree of comparability across species-ranked taxa in different bacterial clades.