The Compressed Vocabulary of Microbial Life

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Communication is an undisputed central activity of life that requires an evolving molecular language. It conveys meaning through messages and vocabularies. Here, I explore the existence of a growing vocabulary in the molecules and molecular functions of the microbial world. There are clear correspondences between the lexicon, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of language organization and the module, structure, function, and fitness paradigms of molecular biology. These correspondences are constrained by universal laws and engineering principles. Macromolecular structure, for example, follows quantitative linguistic patterns arising from statistical laws that are likely universal, including the Zipf’s law, a special case of the scale-free distribution, the Heaps’ law describing sublinear growth typical of economies of scales, and the Menzerath–Altmann’s law, which imposes size-dependent patterns of decreasing returns. Trade-off solutions between principles of economy, flexibility, and robustness define a “triangle of persistence” describing the impact of the environment on a biological system. The pragmatic landscape of the triangle interfaces with the syntax and semantics of molecular languages, which together with comparative and evolutionary genomic data can explain global patterns of diversification of cellular life. The vocabularies of proteins (proteomes) and functions (functionomes) revealed a significant universal lexical core supporting a universal common ancestor, an ancestral evolutionary link between Bacteria and Eukarya, and distinct reductive evolutionary strategies of language compression in Archaea and Bacteria. A “causal” word cloud strategy inspired by the dependency grammar paradigm used in catenae unfolded the evolution of lexical units associated with Gene Ontology terms at different levels of ontological abstraction. While Archaea holds the smallest, oldest, and most homogeneous vocabulary of all superkingdoms, Bacteria heterogeneously apportions a more complex vocabulary, and Eukarya pushes functional innovation through mechanisms of flexibility and robustness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number655990
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
StatePublished - Jul 7 2021


  • Heaps’ law
  • Menzerath-Altmann’s law
  • Zipf’s law
  • evolution
  • molecular functions
  • persistence triangle
  • semantics
  • word clouds

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Microbiology (medical)


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