We investigated the biological significance of path lengths in 12 protein-protein interaction (PPI) networks. We put forward three predictions, based on the idea that biological complexity influences path lengths. First, at the network level, path lengths are generally longer in PPIs than in random networks. Second, this pattern is more pronounced in more complex organisms. Third, within a PPI network, path lengths of individual proteins are biologically significant. We found that in 11 of the 12 species, average path lengths in PPI networks are significantly longer than those in randomly rewired networks. The PPI network of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum, however, does not exhibit deviation from rewired networks. Furthermore, eukaryotic PPIs exhibit significantly greater deviation from randomly rewired networks than prokaryotic PPIs. Thus our study highlights the potentially meaningful variation in path lengths of PPI networks. Moreover, node eccentricity, defined as the longest path from a protein to others, is significantly correlated with the levels of gene expression and dispensability in the yeast PPI network. We conclude that biological complexity influences both global and local properties of path lengths in PPI networks. Investigating variation of path lengths may provide new tools to analyze the evolution of functional modules in biological systems.
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