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Lateral gene transfer

In the Literature.

Now that many genomes have been sequenced, scientists can look at the genomes of Drosophila, Arabidopsis, human and more than 30 microbes to compare their genetic repertoires.

Through comparison of microbial genomes, scientists have observed the frequent transfer of genetic material from one bacterium to another; it is one reason that antibiotic resistance genes spread so quickly. This gene flow from one strain of bacteria directly to another is described as lateral transfer and contrasts with the more conventional vertical transmission of genes within a species from one generation to the next through inheritance.

One of the more intriguing, and debated, issues in comparative genomics is the appearance of bacteria genes in the human genome. Given the absence of these genes from invertebrate ancestors like the fruit fly, nematode worm, and yeast, scientists have proposed that these genes were laterally transferred to our genome via a bacterial infection of a recent vertebrate ancestor.

This week's feature questions whether the 40 genes shared only by humans and bacteria are true examples of lateral transfer. The abstracts presented below describe examples of lateral gene transfer among microbes, between human and bacteria, as well as between plants and bacteria in recent literature.

Bijal P. Trivedi


Plagiarized bacterial genes in the human book of life.

The initial analysis of the human genome draft sequence reveals that our 'book of life' is multi-authored. A small but significant proportion of our genes owes their heritage not to antecedent eukaryotes but instead to bacteria. The publicly funded Human Genome Project study indicates that about 0.5% of all human genes were copied into the genome from bacterial sources. Detailed sequence analyses point to these 'horizontal gene transfer' events having occurred relatively recently. So how did the human 'book of life' evolve to be a chimaera, part animal and part bacterium? And what was the probable evolutionary impact of such gene plagiarism?

Trends Genet 2001 May;17(5):235-7.

How many genes in Arabidopsis come from cyanobacteria? An estimate from 386 protein phylogenies.

It is well known that chloroplasts and mitochondria donated many genes to nuclear chromosomes during evolution - but how many is 'many'? A sample of 3961 Arabidopsis nuclear protein-coding genes was compared with the complete set of proteins from yeast and 17 reference prokaryotic genomes, including one cyanobacterium (the lineage from which plastids arose). The analysis of 386 phylogenetic trees distilled from these data suggests that between approximately 400 (1.6%) and approximately 2200 (9.2%) of Arabidopsis nuclear genes stem from cyanobacteria. The degree of conservation preserved in protein sequences in addition to lateral gene transfer between free-living prokaryotes pose substantial challenges to genome phylogenetics.

Trends Genet 2001 Mar;17(3):113-20.

Phylogenetic analyses of two "archaeal" genes in thermotoga maritima reveal multiple transfers between archaea and bacteria.

The genome sequence of Thermotoga maritima revealed that 24% of its open reading frames (ORFs) showed the highest similarity scores to archaeal genes in BLAST analyses. Here we screened 16 strains from the genus Thermotoga and other related Thermotogales for the occurrence of two of these "archaeal" genes: the gene encoding the large subunit of glutamate synthase (gltB) and the myo-inositol 1P synthase gene (ino1). Both genes were restricted to the Thermotoga species within the Thermotogales. The distribution of the two genes, along with results from phylogenetic analyses, showed that they were acquired from Archaea during the divergence of the Thermotogales. Database searches revealed that three other bacteria-Dehalococcoides ethenogenes, Sinorhizobium meliloti, and Clostridium difficile-possess archaeal-type gltBs, and the phylogenetic analyses confirmed at least two lateral gene transfer (LGT) events between Bacteria and Archaea. These LGT events were also strongly supported by gene structure data, as the three domains in bacterial-type gltB are homologous to three independent ORFs in Archaea and Bacteria with archaeal-type gltBs. The ino1 gene has a scattered distribution among Bacteria, and apart from the Thermotoga strains it is found only in Aquifex aeolicus, D. ethenogenes, and some high-G+C Gram-positive bacteria. Phylogenetic analysis of the ino1 sequences revealed three highly supported prokaryotic clades, all containing a mixture of archaeal and bacterial sequences, and suggested that all bacterial ino1 genes had been recruited from archaeal donors. The Thermotoga strains and A. aeolicus acquired this gene independently from different archaeal species. Although transfer of genes from hyperthermophilic Archaea may have facilitated the evolution of bacterial hyperthermophily, between-domain transfers also affect mesophilic species. For hyperthermophiles, we hypothesize that LGT may be as much a consequence as the cause of adaptation to hyperthermophily.

Mol Biol Evol 2001 Mar;18(3):362-75.

Genome sequence of enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli O157:H7.

The bacterium Escherichia coli O157:H7 is a worldwide threat to public health and has been implicated in many outbreaks of haemorrhagic colitis, some of which included fatalities caused by haemolytic uraemic syndrome. Close to 75,000 cases of O157:H7 infection are now estimated to occur annually in the United States. The severity of disease, the lack of effective treatment and the potential for large-scale outbreaks from contaminated food supplies have propelled intensive research on the pathogenesis and detection of E. coli O157:H7 (ref. 4). Here we have sequenced the genome of E. coli O157:H7 to identify candidate genes responsible for pathogenesis, to develop better methods of strain detection and to advance our understanding of the evolution of E. coli, through comparison with the genome of the non-pathogenic laboratory strain E. coli K-12 (ref. 5). We find that lateral gene transfer is far more extensive than previously anticipated. In fact, 1,387 new genes encoded in strain-specific clusters of diverse sizes were found in O157:H7. These include candidate virulence factors, alternative metabolic capacities, several prophages and other new functions--all of which could be targets for surveillance.

Nature 2001 Jan 25;409(6819):529-33.

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