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Did you know that genes transfer between species?

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There is increasing evidence that genes can transfer naturally from microorganisms to more complex species such as insects, plants and humans. Well over 100 genes in the human genome ‘jumped’ from microorganisms [1]. Although infrequent, this defies the commonly held belief that, in nature, genes can only be passed on from generation to generation within the same species. Plant scientists have used these natural mechanisms as a basis for applications including, development of suitable traits to improve crops.

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To find out more, watch the following animation that illustrates Horizontal Gene Transfer.

In March 2021, scientists discovered the first known gene transfer from plants to insects [2], which enables whiteflies to neutralize a toxin that some plants produce to defend against insects. With this genetic thievery, that occurred millions of years ago, the plants’ natural insecticide is no longer effective against these whiteflies. Also, evidence of an ’anti-freeze gene’ which passed from one fish species to another was published recently [3]. With the advancement of genome sequencing techniques, additional examples will likely be uncovered soon.

[1] Humans may harbor more than 100 genes from other organisms. Science AAAS (2015) Original article: Crisp A. et al. Expression of multiple horizontally acquired genes is a hallmark of both vertebrate and invertebrate genomes. Genome Biol (2015) https://doi.org/10.1186/s13059-015-0607-3
[2] First known gene transfer from plant to insect identified. Nature (2021) Original article: Xia, J. et al. Whitefly hijacks a plant detoxification gene that neutralizes plant toxins. Cell (2021) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2021.02.014
[3] These fish stole an antifreeze gene from another fish and became natural GMOs | CBC News Original article: Graham L, A. & Davies P, L., Horizontal Gene Transfer in Vertebrates: A Fishy Tale. Trends in Genetics (2021) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tig.2021.02.006