The role of horizontal gene transfer in bacterial evolution
Caro Quintero, Alejandro
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Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is probably the most important mechanism for functional novelty and adaption in bacteria. However, a robust understanding of the rates of HGT for most bacterial species and the influence of the ecological settings on the rates remain elusive. Four whole-genome comparative studies of free-living bacteria will be described that integrated physiological and ecological data with novel detection bioinformatic pipelines to elucidate the magnitude of HGT at three distinct levels of genetic relatedness: i) the species level, where overlapping ecological niche among co-occurring bacteria in the water column of the Baltic Sea has caused HGT to have been so rampant that it has served as the force of species cohesion; ii) the genus level, where HGT appeared to predominantly mobilize a limited number of genes with ecological/selective advantage (e.g., antibiotic resistance genes) among distinct pathogenic Campylobacter species and hence, did not lead to species convergence; and iii) the phylum level, where HGT was found to be, in general, less frequent than the genus level but, over evolutionary time, has assembled a large part of the metabolic functions of natural microbial communities, especially within organic matter rich, anaerobic habitats. In conclusion, this work advances the methods to link ecological relationships with HGT and suggests that HGT among very divergent organisms may have been more frequent than previously thought and led to successful adaptation.