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Nat Rev Microbiol. 2005 Sep;3(9):679-87.

Horizontal gene transfer, genome innovation and evolution.

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Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut 06269-3125, USA.


To what extent is the tree of life the best representation of the evolutionary history of microorganisms? Recent work has shown that, among sets of prokaryotic genomes in which most homologous genes show extremely low sequence divergence, gene content can vary enormously, implying that those genes that are variably present or absent are frequently horizontally transferred. Traditionally, successful horizontal gene transfer was assumed to provide a selective advantage to either the host or the gene itself, but could horizontally transferred genes be neutral or nearly neutral? We suggest that for many prokaryotes, the boundaries between species are fuzzy, and therefore the principles of population genetics must be broadened so that they can be applied to higher taxonomic categories.

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