Horizontal gene transfer (HGT)

Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) or lateral gene transfer (LGT) is the movement of genetic material between unicellular and/or multicellular organisms other than by the (“vertical”) transmission of DNA from parent to offspring (reproduction). HGT is an important factor in the evolution of many organisms.

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.

Most thinking in genetics has focused upon vertical transfer, but the importance of horizontal gene transfer among single-cell organisms is beginning to be acknowledged.

Gene delivery can be seen as an artificial horizontal gene transfer, and is a form of genetic engineering.

Griffith’s experiment, reported in 1928 by Frederick Griffith, was the first experiment suggesting that bacteria are capable of transferring genetic information through a process known as transformation. Griffith’s findings were followed by research in the late 1930s and early 40s that isolated DNA as the material that communicated this genetic information.

Horizontal genetic transfer was then described in Seattle in 1951, in a paper demonstrating that the transfer of a viral gene into Corynebacterium diphtheriae created a virulent strain from a non-virulent strain, also simultaneously solving the riddle of diphtheria (that patients could be infected with the bacteria but not have any symptoms, and then suddenly convert later or never), and giving the first example for the relevance of the lysogenic cycle. Inter-bacterial gene transfer was first described in Japan in a 1959 publication that demonstrated the transfer of antibiotic resistance between different species of bacteria. In the mid-1980s, Syvanen predicted that lateral gene transfer existed, had biological significance, and was involved in shaping evolutionary history from the beginning of life on Earth.

As Jian, Rivera and Lake (1999) put it: “Increasingly, studies of genes and genomes are indicating that considerable horizontal transfer has occurred between prokaryotes” (see also Lake and Rivera, 2007). The phenomenon appears to have had some significance for unicellular eukaryotes as well. As Bapteste et al. (2005) observe, “additional evidence suggests that gene transfer might also be an important evolutionary mechanism in protist evolution.”

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.

Aaron Richardson and Jeffrey D. Palmer state: “Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) has played a major role in bacterial evolution and is fairly common in certain unicellular eukaryotes. However, the prevalence and importance of HGT in the evolution of multicellular eukaryotes remain unclear.”

Due to the increasing amount of evidence suggesting the importance of these phenomena for evolution molecular biologists such as Peter Gogarten have described horizontal gene transfer as “A New Paradigm for Biology”.


There are several mechanisms for horizontal gene transfer:

  • Transformation, the genetic alteration of a cell resulting from the introduction, uptake and expression of foreign genetic material (DNA or RNA). This process is relatively common in bacteria, but less so in eukaryotes. Transformation is often used in laboratories to insert novel genes into bacteria for experiments or for industrial or medical applications.
  • Transduction, the process in which bacterial DNA is moved from one bacterium to another by a virus (a bacteriophage, or phage).
  • Bacterial conjugation, a process that involves the transfer of DNA via a plasmid from a donor cell to a recombinant recipient cell during cell-to-cell contact.
  • Gene transfer agents, virus-like elements encoded by the host that are found in the alphaproteobacteria order Rhodobacterales.

Horizontal transposon transfer

A transposable element (TE) (also called a transposon or jumping gene) is a mobile segment of DNA that can sometimes pick up a resistance gene and insert it into a plasmid or chromosome, thereby inducing horizontal gene transfer of antibiotic resistance.

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.

HTT can occur with any type of transposable elements, but DNA transposons and LTR retroelements are more likely to be capable of HTT because both have a stable, double-stranded DNA intermediate that is thought to be sturdier than the single-stranded RNA intermediate of non-LTR retroelements, which can be highly degradable. Non-autonomous elements may be less likely to transfer horizontally compared to autonomous elements because they do not encode the proteins required for their own mobilization. The structure of these non-autonomous elements generally consists of an intronless gene encoding a transposase protein, and may or may not have a promoter sequence. Those that do not have promoter sequences encoded within the mobile region rely on adjacent host promoters for expression. Horizontal transfer is thought to play an important role in the TE life cycle.

HTT has been shown to occur between species and across continents in both plants and animals (Ivancevic et al. 2013), though some TEs have been shown to more successfully colonize the genomes of certain species over others. Both spatial and taxonomic proximity of species has been proposed to favor HTTs in plants and animals. It is unknown how the density of a population may affect the rate of HTT events within a population, but close proximity due to parasitism and cross contamination due to crowding have been proposed to favor HTT in both plants and animals. Successful transfer of a transposable element requires delivery of DNA from donor to host cell (and to the germ line for multi-cellular organisms), followed by integration into the recipient host genome. Though the actual mechanism for the transportation of TEs from donor cells to host cells is unknown, it is established that naked DNA and RNA can circulate in bodily fluid. Many proposed vectors include arthropods, viruses, freshwater snails (Ivancevic et al. 2013), endosymbiotic bacteria, and intracellular parasitic bacteria. In some cases, even TEs facilitate transport for other TEs.

The arrival of a new TE in a host genome can have detrimental consequences because TE mobility may induce mutation. However, HTT can also be beneficial by introducing new genetic material into a genome and promoting the shuffling of genes and TE domains among hosts, which can be co-opted by the host genome to perform new functions. Moreover, transposition activity increases the TE copy number and generates chromosomal rearrangement hotspots. HTT detection is a difficult task because it is an ongoing phenomenon that is constantly changing in frequency of occurrence and composition of TEs inside host genomes. Furthermore, few species have been analyzed for HTT, making it difficult to establish patterns of HTT events between species. These issues can lead to the underestimation or overestimation of HTT events between ancestral and current eukaryotic species.

Methods of detection

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.


The virus called Mimivirus infects amoebae. Another virus, called Sputnik, also infects amoebae, but it cannot reproduce unless mimivirus has already infected the same cell. “Sputnik’s genome reveals further insight into its biology. Although 13 of its genes show little similarity to any other known genes, three are closely related to mimivirus and mamavirus genes, perhaps cannibalized by the tiny virus as it packaged up particles sometime in its history. This suggests that the satellite virus could perform horizontal gene transfer between viruses, paralleling the way that bacteriophages ferry genes between bacteria.” Horizontal transfer is also seen between geminiviruses and tobacco plants.


Horizontal gene transfer is common among bacteria, even among very distantly related ones. This process is thought to be a significant cause of increased drug resistance when one bacterial cell acquires resistance, and the resistance genes are transferred to other species. Transposition and horizontal gene transfer, along with strong natural selective forces have led to multi-drug resistant strains of S. aureus and many other pathogenic bacteria. Horizontal gene transfer also plays a role in the spread of virulence factors, such as exotoxins and exoenzymes, amongst bacteria. A prime example concerning the spread of exotoxins is the adaptive evolution of Shiga toxins in E. coli through horizontal gene transfer via transduction with Shigella species of bacteria. Strategies to combat certain bacterial infections by targeting these specific virulence factors and mobile genetic elements have been proposed. For example, horizontally transferred genetic elements play important roles in the virulence of E. coliSalmonellaStreptococcus and Clostridium perfringens.

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.

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