Nature's strategies: Stealing genes to survive

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Science  02 Mar 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6379, pp. 979
DOI: 10.1126/science.359.6379.979

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When environments change, organisms adapt or die. Klebsiella pneumoniae and other bacteria have turbocharged the process of adaptation by snagging genes from elsewhere, including various bacteria and DNA molecules loose in the environment. Such horizontal gene transfers allow the bugs to gain valuable new traits, everything from the ability to thrive on cheese rinds to antibiotic resistance. As with many resilience strategies in nature, stealing genes has its costs. Sometimes microbes incorporate harmful genes instead of helpful ones. And much like a new player on a basketball team, the protein produced from an acquired gene may not mesh with the cell's other proteins. But unfortunately for the hospitalized cancer patients vulnerable to K. pneumoniae, its strategy works all too well: Those bugs kill between 40% and 70% of the people they infect.