High Frequency of Horizontal Gene Transfer in the Oceans

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Science  01 Oct 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6000, pp. 50
DOI: 10.1126/science.1192243

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Oceanic bacteria perform many environmental functions, including biogeochemical cycling of many elements, metabolizing of greenhouse gases, functioning in oceanic food webs (microbial loop), and producing valuable natural products and viruses. We demonstrate that the widespread capability of marine bacteria to participate in horizontal gene transfer (HGT) in coastal and oceanic environments may be the result of gene transfer agents (GTAs), viral-like particles produced by α-Proteobacteria. We documented GTA-mediated gene transfer frequencies a thousand to a hundred million times higher than prior estimates of HGT in the oceans, with as high as 47% of the culturable natural microbial community confirmed as gene recipients. These findings suggest a plausible mechanism by which marine bacteria acquire novel traits, thus ensuring resilience in the face of environmental change.

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