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Appl Microbiol Biotechnol. 2010 Apr;86(4):1027-41. doi: 10.1007/s00253-010-2489-3. Epub 2010 Feb 27.

Molecular aspects of gene transfer and foreign DNA acquisition in prokaryotes with regard to safety issues.

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Bundesamt für Verbraucherschutz und Lebensmittelsicherheit, Mauerstrasse 39-42, Berlin, Germany.


Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is part of prokaryotic life style and a major factor in evolution. In principle, any combinations of genetic information can be explored via HGT for effects on prokaryotic fitness. HGT mechanisms including transformation, conjugation, transduction, and variations of these plus the role of mobile genetic elements are summarized with emphasis on their potential to translocate foreign DNA. Complementarily, we discuss how foreign DNA can be integrated in recipient cells through homologous recombination (HR), illegitimate recombination (IR), and combinations of both, site-specific recombination, and the reconstitution of plasmids. Integration of foreign DNA by IR is very low, and combinations of IR with HR provide intermediate levels compared to the high frequency of homologous integration. A survey of studies on potential HGT from various transgenic plants indicates very rare transfer of foreign DNA. At the same time, in prokaryotic habitats, genes introduced into transgenic plants are abundant, and natural HGT frequencies are relatively high providing a greater chance for direct transfer instead of via transgenic plants. It is concluded that potential HGT from transgenic plants to prokaryotes is not expected to influence prokaryotic evolution and to have negative effects on human or animal health and the environment.

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