PerspectiveMicrobiology

A common trick for transferring bacterial DNA

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Science  12 Oct 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6411, pp. 152-153
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav1723

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Summary

A key reason that bacteria thrive is their ability to readily exchange pieces of their genomes both within and between species. This process of horizontal gene transfer allows them to rapidly adapt to diverse ecological niches and, unfortunately for humans, widely disperse genes encoding antibiotic resistance and virulence factors. Phages, the viruses that infect bacteria, are key players in horizontal gene transfer. Host bacterial DNA can be packaged into phage particles in a process called transduction (1). The resulting transducing particles can infect other cells and thereby deliver the bacterial DNA. Historically, transduction has been viewed as a rare event, caused by phages making “mistakes” and packaging the “wrong” DNA. However, on page 207 of this issue, Chen et al. (2) describe a mechanism that mediates transduction at frequencies 1000-fold higher than previously observed. This mode of transduction is a natural part of the phage life cycle and likely occurs often in diverse bacterial species, thus exerting a strong effect on horizontal gene transfer and bacterial evolution.