AGENCY FOR TOXIC SUBSTANCES AND DISEASE REGISTRY

Horizontal gene transfer

Horizontal gene transfer is the primary mechanism for the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, and plays an important role in the evolution of bacteria that can degrade novel compounds such as human-created pesticides and in the evolution, maintenance, and transmission of virulence. It often involves temperate bacteriophages and plasmids. Genes responsible for antibiotic resistance in one species of bacteria can be transferred to another species of bacteria through various mechanisms of HGT such as transformation, transduction and conjugation, subsequently arming the antibiotic resistant genes' recipient against antibiotics. The rapid spread of antibiotic resistance genes in this manner is becoming medically challenging to deal with. Ecological factors may also play a role in the LGT of antibiotic resistant genes. It is also postulated that HGT promotes the maintenance of a universal life biochemistry and, subsequently, the universality of the genetic code.

Grafting of one plant to another can transfer chloroplasts (organelles in plant cells that conduct photosynthesis), mitochondrial DNA, and the entire cell nucleus containing the genome to potentially make a new species. Some Lepidoptera (e.g. monarch butterflies and silkworms) have been genetically modified by horizontal gene transfer from the wasp bracovirus. Bites from the insect Reduviidae (assassin bug) can, via a parasite, infect humans with the trypanosomal Chagas disease, which can insert its DNA into the human genome. It has been suggested that lateral gene transfer to humans from bacteria may play a role in cancer.

Horizontal transposon transfer (HTT) refers to the passage of pieces of DNA that are characterized by their ability to move from one locus to another between genomes by means other than parent-to-offspring inheritance. Horizontal gene transfer has long been thought to be crucial to prokaryotic evolution, but there is a growing amount of data showing that HTT is a common and widespread phenomenon in eukaryote evolution as well. On the transposable element side, spreading between genomes via horizontal transfer may be viewed as a strategy to escape purging due to purifying selection, mutational decay and/or host defense mechanisms.

Horizontal gene transfer is typically inferred using bioinformatics methods, either by identifying atypical sequence signatures ("parametric" methods) or by identifying strong discrepancies between the evolutionary history of particular sequences compared to that of their hosts. The transferred gene (xenolog) found in the receiving species is more closely related to the genes of the donor species than would be expected.

In prokaryotes, restriction-modification systems are known to provide immunity against horizontal gene transfer and in stabilizing mobile genetic elements. Genes encoding restriction modification systems have been reported to move between prokaryotic genomes within mobile genetic elements such as plasmids, prophages, insertion sequences/transposons, integrative conjugative elements (ICEs), and integrons. Still, they are more frequently a chromosomal-encoded barrier to MGEs than an MGE-encoded tool for cell infection.

Genetic engineering is essentially horizontal gene transfer, albeit with synthetic expression cassettes. The Sleeping Beauty transposon system (SB) was developed as a synthetic gene transfer agent that was based on the known abilities of Tc1/mariner transposons to invade genomes of extremely diverse species. The SB system has been used to introduce genetic sequences into a wide variety of animal genomes.

Using single genes as phylogenetic markers, it is difficult to trace organismal phylogeny in the presence of horizontal gene transfer. Combining the simple coalescence model of cladogenesis with rare HGT horizontal gene transfer events suggest there was no single most recent common ancestor that contained all of the genes ancestral to those shared among the three domains of life. Each contemporary molecule has its own history and traces back to an individual molecule cenancestor. However, these molecular ancestors were likely to be present in different organisms at different times.