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BMC Evol Biol. 2011 Jan 13;11:13. doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-11-13.

Horizontal gene transfer of microbial cellulases into nematode genomes is associated with functional assimilation and gene turnover.

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Max-Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Department for Evolutionary Biology, Spemannstrasse 37, 72076 Tübingen, Germany.



Natural acquisition of novel genes from other organisms by horizontal or lateral gene transfer is well established for microorganisms. There is now growing evidence that horizontal gene transfer also plays important roles in the evolution of eukaryotes. Genome-sequencing and EST projects of plant and animal associated nematodes such as Brugia, Meloidogyne, Bursaphelenchus and Pristionchus indicate horizontal gene transfer as a key adaptation towards parasitism and pathogenicity. However, little is known about the functional activity and evolutionary longevity of genes acquired by horizontal gene transfer and the mechanisms favoring such processes.


We examine the transfer of cellulase genes to the free-living and beetle-associated nematode Pristionchus pacificus, for which detailed phylogenetic knowledge is available, to address predictions by evolutionary theory for successful gene transfer. We used transcriptomics in seven Pristionchus species and three other related diplogastrid nematodes with a well-defined phylogenetic framework to study the evolution of ancestral cellulase genes acquired by horizontal gene transfer. We performed intra-species, inter-species and inter-genic analysis by comparing the transcriptomes of these ten species and tested for cellulase activity in each species. Species with cellulase genes in their transcriptome always exhibited cellulase activity indicating functional integration into the host's genome and biology. The phylogenetic profile of cellulase genes was congruent with the species phylogeny demonstrating gene longevity. Cellulase genes show notable turnover with elevated birth and death rates. Comparison by sequencing of three selected cellulase genes in 24 natural isolates of Pristionchus pacificus suggests these high evolutionary dynamics to be associated with copy number variations and positive selection.


We could demonstrate functional integration of acquired cellulase genes into the nematode's biology as predicted by theory. Thus, functional assimilation, remarkable gene turnover and selection might represent key features of horizontal gene transfer events in nematodes.

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