Testing the Ortholog Conjecture with Comparative Functional Genomic Data from Mammals
A common assumption in comparative genomics is that orthologous genes share greater functional similarity than do paralogous genes (the “ortholog conjecture”). Many methods used to computationally predict protein function are based on this assumption, even though it is largely untested. Here we present the first large-scale test of the ortholog conjecture using comparative functional genomic data from human and mouse. We use the experimentally derived functions of more than 8,900 genes, as well as an independent microarray dataset, to directly assess our ability to predict function using both orthologs and paralogs. Both datasets show that paralogs are often a much better predictor of function than are orthologs, even at lower sequence identities. Among paralogs, those found within the same species are consistently more functionally similar than those found in a different species. We also find that paralogous pairs residing on the same chromosome are more functionally similar than those on different chromosomes, perhaps due to higher levels of interlocus gene conversion between these pairs. In addition to offering implications for the computational prediction of protein function, our results shed light on the relationship between sequence divergence and functional divergence. We conclude that the most important factor in the evolution of function is not amino acid sequence, but rather the cellular context in which proteins act. The use of model organisms in biological research rests upon the assumption that gene and protein functions discovered in one organism are likely to be the same or similar in another organism. Hence, the assumption that experiments in mouse will tell us about the function of genes in humans. A guiding principle in the assignment of function from one organism to another is that single-copy genes (“orthologs”) are statistically more likely to provide functional information than are multi-copy genes, whether in the same organism or different organisms. Here we have tested this idea by examining genes with known functions in human and mouse. Surprisingly, we find that multi-copy genes are equally or more likely to provide accurate functional information than are single-copy genes. Our results suggest that the organism itself plays at least as large a role in determining the function of genes as does the particular sequence of the gene alone. This insight will benefit the assignment of function to genes whose roles are not yet known by widening the pool of appropriate genes from which function can be inferred.