Perspectives on the Phylogenetic Tree

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. Scientists believe that HGT is more prevalent in prokaryotes, but that this process transfers only about 2% of the prokaryotic genome. Some researchers believe such estimates are premature: we must view the actual importance of HGT to evolutionary processes as a work in progress. As scientists investigate this phenomenon more thoroughly, they may reveal more HGT transfer. Many scientists believe that HGT and mutation are (especially in prokaryotes) a significant source of genetic variation, which is the raw material in the natural selection process. These transfers may occur between any two species that share an intimate relationship (Table).

Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic HGT Mechanisms Summary
Mechanism Mode of Transmission Example
Prokaryotes transformation DNA uptake many prokaryotes
transduction bacteriophage (virus) bacteria
conjugation pilus many prokaryotes
gene transfer agents phage-like particles purple non-sulfur bacteria
Eukaryotes from food organisms unknown aphid
jumping genes transposons rice and millet plants
epiphytes/parasites unknown yew tree fungi
from viral infections

HGT in Prokaryotes

HGT mechanisms are quite common in the Bacteria and Archaea domains, thus significantly changing the way scientists view their evolution. 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 Endosymbiont Theory purports that the eukaryotes' mitochondria and the green plants' chloroplasts and flagellates originated as free-living prokaryotes that invaded primitive eukaryotic cells and become established as permanent symbionts in the cytoplasm.

Microbiology students are well aware that genes transfer among common bacteria. These gene transfers between species are the major mechanism whereby bacteria acquire resistance to antibiotics. Classically, scientists believe that three different mechanisms drive such transfers.

  1. Transformation: bacteria takes up naked DNA
  2. Transduction: a virus transfers the genes
  3. Conjugation: a hollow tube, or pilus transfers genes between organisms

More recently, scientists have discovered a fourth gene transfer mechanism between prokaryotes. Small, virus-like particles, or gene transfer agents (GTAs) transfer random genomic segments from one prokaryote species to another. GTAs are responsible for genetic changes, sometimes at a very high frequency compared to other evolutionary processes. Scientists characterized the first GTA in 1974 using purple, non-sulfur bacteria. These GTAs, which are most likely bacteriophages that lost the ability to reproduce on their own, carry random DNA pieces from one organism to another. Controlled studies using marine bacteria have demonstrated GTAs' ability to act with high frequency. Scientists have estimated gene transfer events in marine prokaryotes, either by GTAs or by viruses, to be as high as 1013 per year in the Mediterranean Sea alone. GTAs and viruses are 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 (located in many genes' promoter region), the discovery that some eukaryotic genes were more homologous with bacterial DNA than Archaea DNA made this idea less tenable. Furthermore, scientists have proposed genome fusion from Archaea and Bacteria by endosymbiosis as the ultimate event in eukaryotic evolution.

HGT in Eukaryotes

Although it is easy to see how prokaryotes exchange genetic material by HGT, scientists initially thought that this process was absent in eukaryotes. After all, prokaryotes are but single cells exposed directly to their environment; whereas, the multicellular organisms' sex cells 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. Scientists believe this process is rarer in eukaryotes and has a much smaller evolutionary impact than in prokaryotes. In spite of this, HGT between distantly related organisms is evident in several eukaryotic species, and it is possible that scientists will discover more examples in the future.

In plants, researchers have observed gene transfer in species that cannot cross-pollinate by normal means. Transposons or “jumping genes” have shown a 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 (Figure). Aphids are insects that vary in color based on carotenoid content. Carotenoids are pigments that a variety of plants, fungi, and microbes produce, 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. Alternatively, aphids have acquired the ability to make the carotenoids on their own. According to DNA analysis, this ability is due to fungal genes transferring into the insect by HGT, presumably as the insect consumed fungi for food. A carotenoid enzyme, or desaturase, is responsible for the red coloration in certain aphids, and when mutation activates this gene, the aphids revert to their more common green color (Figure).

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 mutation inactivates the genes for making carotenoids, the aphids revert back to (b) their green color. Red coloration makes the aphids considerably 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)