K-mer analyses reveal different evolutionary histories of alpha, beta, and gamma papillomaviruses

Zigui Chen, Filippo Utro, Daniel Platt, Rob Desalle, Laxmi Parida, Paul K.S. Chan, Robert D. Burk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Papillomaviruses (PVs) are a heterogeneous group of DNA viruses that can infect fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals. PVs infecting humans (HPVs) phylogenetically cluster into five genera (Alpha-, Beta-, Gamma-, Mu-and Nu-PV), with differences in tissue tropism and carcinogenicity. The evolutionary features associated with the divergence of Papillomaviridae are not well understood. Using a combination of k-mer distributions, genetic metrics, and phylogenetic algorithms, we sought to evaluate the characteristics and differences of Alpha-, Beta-and Gamma-PVs constituting the majority of HPV genomes. A total of 640 PVs including 442 HPV types, 27 non-human primate PV types, and 171 non-primate animal PV types were evaluated. Our analyses revealed the highest genetic diversity amongst Gamma-PVs compared to the Alpha and Beta PVs, suggesting reduced selective pressures on Gamma-PVs. Using a sequence alignment-free trimer (k = 3) phylogeny algorithm, we reconstructed a phylogeny that grouped most HPV types into a monophyletic clade that was further split into three branches similar to alignment-based classifications. Interestingly, a subset of low-risk Alpha HPVs (the species Alpha-2, 3, 4, and 14) split from other HPVs and were clustered with non-human primate PVs. Surprisingly, the trimer-constructed phylogeny grouped the Gamma-6 species types originally isolated from the cervicovaginal region with the main Alpha-HPV clade. These data indicate that characterization of papillomavirus heterogeneity via orthogonal approaches reveals novel insights into the biological understanding of HPV genomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number9657
JournalInternational Journal of Molecular Sciences
Issue number17
StatePublished - Sep 2021


  • Alpha-papillomavirus
  • Beta-papillomavirus
  • Evolution
  • Gamma-papillomavirus
  • K-mer distribution
  • Papillomaviridae

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Catalysis
  • Molecular Biology
  • Spectroscopy
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Inorganic Chemistry


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