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Horizontal Gene Transfer

Horizontal Gene Transfer

Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is the introduction of genetic material from one species to another species by mechanisms other than the vertical transmission from parent(s) to offspring. These transfers allow even distantly related species to share genes, influencing their phenotypes. It is thought that HGT is more prevalent in prokaryotes, but that only about 2% of the prokaryotic genome may be transferred by this process.

Some researchers believe such estimates are premature: the actual importance of HGT to evolutionary processes must be viewed as a work in progress. As the phenomenon is investigated more thoroughly, it may be revealed to be more common. Many scientists believe that HGT and mutation appear to be (especially in prokaryotes) a significant source of genetic variation, which is the raw material for the process of natural selection. These transfers may occur between any two species that share an intimate relationship (see the table below).

Summary of Mechanisms of Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic HGT
 MechanismMode of TransmissionExample
ProkaryotestransformationDNA uptakemany prokaryotes
 transductionbacteriophage (virus)bacteria
 conjugationpilusmany prokaryotes
 gene transfer agentsphage-like particlespurple non-sulfur bacteria
Eukaryotesfrom food organismsunknownaphid
 jumping genestransposonsrice and millet plants
 epiphytes/parasitesunknownyew tree fungi
 from viral infections  

HGT in Prokaryotes

The mechanism of HGT has been shown to be quite common in the prokaryotic domains of Bacteria and Archaea, significantly changing the way their evolution is viewed. The majority of evolutionary models, such as in the Endosymbiont Theory, propose that eukaryotes descended from multiple prokaryotes, which makes HGT all the more important to understanding the phylogenetic relationships of all extant and extinct species.

The fact that genes are transferred among common bacteria is well known to microbiology students. These gene transfers between species are the major mechanism whereby bacteria acquire resistance to antibiotics. Classically, this type of transfer has been thought to occur by three different mechanisms:

  1. Transformation: naked DNA is taken up by a bacteria
  2. Transduction: genes are transferred using a virus
  3. Conjugation: the use a hollow tube called a pilus to transfer genes between organisms

More recently, a fourth mechanism of gene transfer between prokaryotes has been discovered. Small, virus-like particles called gene transfer agents (GTAs) transfer random genomic segments from one species of prokaryote to another. GTAs have been shown to be responsible for genetic changes, sometimes at a very high frequency compared to other evolutionary processes. The first GTA was characterized in 1974 using purple, non-sulfur bacteria.

These GTAs, which are thought to be bacteriophages that lost the ability to reproduce on their own, carry random pieces of DNA from one organism to another. The ability of GTAs to act with high frequency has been demonstrated in controlled studies using marine bacteria. Gene transfer events in marine prokaryotes, either by GTAs or by viruses, have been estimated to be as high as 1013 per year in the Mediterranean Sea alone. GTAs and viruses are thought to be efficient HGT vehicles with a major impact on prokaryotic evolution.

As a consequence of this modern DNA analysis, the idea that eukaryotes evolved directly from Archaea has fallen out of favor. While eukaryotes share many features that are absent in bacteria, such as the TATA box (found in the promoter region of many genes), the discovery that some eukaryotic genes were more homologous with bacterial DNA than Archaea DNA made this idea less tenable. Furthermore, the fusion of genomes from Archaea and Bacteria by endosymbiosis has been proposed as the ultimate event in eukaryotic evolution.

HGT in Eukaryotes

Although it is easy to see how prokaryotes exchange genetic material by HGT, it was initially thought that this process was absent in eukaryotes. After all, prokaryotes are but single cells exposed directly to their environment, whereas the sex cells of multicellular organisms are usually sequestered in protected parts of the body. It follows from this idea that the gene transfers between multicellular eukaryotes should be more difficult. Indeed, it is thought that this process is rarer in eukaryotes and has a much smaller evolutionary impact than in prokaryotes. In spite of this fact, HGT between distantly related organisms has been demonstrated in several eukaryotic species, and it is possible that more examples will be discovered in the future.

In plants, gene transfer has been observed in species that cannot cross-pollinate by normal means. Transposons or “jumping genes” have been shown to transfer between rice and millet plant species. Furthermore, fungal species feeding on yew trees, from which the anti-cancer drug TAXOL® is derived from the bark, have acquired the ability to make taxol themselves, a clear example of gene transfer.

In animals, a particularly interesting example of HGT occurs within the aphid species (see the figure below). Aphids are insects that vary in color based on carotenoid content. Carotenoids are pigments made by a variety of plants, fungi, and microbes, and they serve a variety of functions in animals, who obtain these chemicals from their food. Humans require carotenoids to synthesize vitamin A, and we obtain them by eating orange fruits and vegetables: carrots, apricots, mangoes, and sweet potatoes.

On the other hand, aphids have acquired the ability to make the carotenoids on their own. According to DNA analysis, this ability is due to the transfer of fungal genes into the insect by HGT, presumably as the insect consumed fungi for food. A carotenoid enzyme called a desaturase is responsible for the red coloration seen in certain aphids, and it has been further shown that when this gene is inactivated by mutation, the aphids revert back to their more common green color (see the figure below).

Photo a shows small, oval-shaped red aphids crawling on a leaf. Photo b shows green aphids.

(a) Red aphids get their color from red carotenoid pigment. Genes necessary to make this pigment are present in certain fungi, and scientists speculate that aphids acquired these genes through HGT after consuming fungi for food. If genes for making carotenoids are inactivated by mutation, the aphids revert back to (b) their green color. Red coloration makes the aphids a lot more conspicuous to predators, but evidence suggests that red aphids are more resistant to insecticides than green ones. Thus, red aphids may be more fit to survive in some environments than green ones. (credit a: modification of work by Benny Mazur; credit b: modification of work by Mick Talbot)

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