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Biol Direct. 2009 Aug 25;4:28. doi: 10.1186/1745-6150-4-28.

On the need for widespread horizontal gene transfers under genome size constraint.

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  • 1Institut Curie, CNRS UMR168, 11 rue P, & M, Curie, 75005 Paris, France. herve.isambert@curie.fr



While eukaryotes primarily evolve by duplication-divergence expansion (and reduction) of their own gene repertoire with only rare horizontal gene transfers, prokaryotes appear to evolve under both gene duplications and widespread horizontal gene transfers over long evolutionary time scales. But, the evolutionary origin of this striking difference in the importance of horizontal gene transfers remains by and large a mystery.


We propose that the abundance of horizontal gene transfers in free-living prokaryotes is a simple but necessary consequence of two opposite effects: i) their apparent genome size constraint compared to typical eukaryote genomes and ii) their underlying genome expansion dynamics through gene duplication-divergence evolution, as demonstrated by the presence of many tandem and block repeated genes. In principle, this combination of genome size constraint and underlying duplication expansion should lead to a coalescent-like process with extensive turnover of functional genes. This would, however, imply the unlikely, systematic reinvention of functions from discarded genes within independent phylogenetic lineages. Instead, we propose that the long-term evolutionary adaptation of free-living prokaryotes must have resulted in the emergence of efficient non-phylogenetic pathways to circumvent gene loss.


This need for widespread horizontal gene transfers due to genome size constraint implies, in particular, that prokaryotes must remain under strong selection pressure in order to maintain the long-term evolutionary adaptation of their "mutualized" gene pool, beyond the inevitable turnover of individual prokaryote species. By contrast, the absence of genome size constraint for typical eukaryotes has presumably relaxed their need for widespread horizontal gene transfers and strong selection pressure. Yet, the resulting loss of genetic functions, due to weak selection pressure and inefficient gene recovery mechanisms, must have ultimately favored the emergence of more complex life styles and ecological integration of many eukaryotes.


This article was reviewed by Pierre Pontarotti, Eugene V Koonin and Sergei Maslov.

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