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Environ Microbiol. 2003 Aug;5(8):641-9.

Interspecific evolution: microbial symbiosis, endosymbiosis and gene transfer.

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  • 1Institute of Botany III, University of Düsseldorf, Universitätsstrasse 1, D-40225 Düsseldorf, Germany.


Microbial symbioses are interesting in their own right and also serve as exemplary models to help biologists to understand two important symbioses in the evolutionary past of eukaryotic cells: the origins of chloroplasts and mitochondria. Most, if not all, microbial symbioses have a chemical basis: compounds produced by one partner are useful for the other. But symbioses can also entail the transfer of genes from one partner to the other, which in some cases cements two cells into a bipartite, co-evolving unit. Here, we discuss some microbial symbioses in which progress is being made in uncovering the nature of symbiotic interactions: anaerobic methane-oxidizing consortia, marine worms that possess endosymbionts instead of a digestive tract, amino acid-producing endosymbionts of aphids, prokaryotic endosymbionts living within a prokaryotic host within mealybugs, endosymbionts of an insect vector of human disease and a photosynthetic sea slug that steals chloroplasts from algae. In the case of chloroplasts and mitochondria, examples of recent and ancient gene transfer to the chromosomes of their host cell illustrate the process of genetic merger in the wake of organelle origins.

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