New research finds that some yeast picked up a whole suite of genes from bacteria that gave them the new ability to scavenge iron from their environment. It’s one of the clearest examples yet of the transfer of genes from one branch on the tree of life to another.
An insect’s gut might seem an inhospitable place to settle in, but diverse microbes nonetheless make their home there. Yet in the gut, there’s a struggle for the nutrients needed to survive among the resident bacteria and fungi — not to mention the insect.
That yeast siphoned up an array of genes from a bacterium. Those genes gave the yeast the ability to make molecules that capture iron for the cell. With that newfound advantage, that single cell eventually diverged into a handful of yeast species, many of which today call insect guts home.
Those genes arrived as a package, seven genes lined up together as a single unit. Common in bacteria, but rare in fungi, these packages of multiple genes that function together are known as operons. This yeast’s vacuuming up of the bacterial iron-scavenging operon is one of the clearest cases yet of the transfer of genes from the bacterial domain to organisms like fungi — the arcing over of one branch on the tree of life to donate genetic material to an altogether separate branch.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Genetics Chris Todd Hittinger and his lab report this gene transfer in the March 7 issue of the journal Celland online Feb. 21. The work was led by postdoctoral researcher Jacek Kominek and graduate student Drew Doering, with collaborators across North America, China and the Netherlands.
As part of the Y1000+ Project to sequence the genomes of more than 1,000 yeast species, Kominek and Doering were searching for genes that enable the production of iron-scavenging molecules. Those genes hadn’t been seen in yeasts before.
“Then there’s a bunch of species that seem to have this bacterial pathway. Our first thought was: Is this an error?” says Kominek. “So we started digging deeper. And we found that the genes are located next to each other. They’re involved in the same process. And they originated from bacteria. It was an unexpected thing to find.”
Spotting seven genes transferred from bacteria to yeast in a single event was exciting for the researchers — it could be a clear case of cross-domain horizontal gene transfer. If so, it was not just a single gene, but many genes conferring a complex new trait. Yet this kind of genomic detritus swapped between cells can, over the course of millions of years, degrade until it no longer functions.
So Doering asked whether the iron-scavenging pathway still worked. He found that, indeed, the genes were still active and capable of producing the end product of the pathway. To test whether the yeast could use the bacterial pathway to scavenge iron, he grew the yeast on petri dishes with a dye that blazes electric blue when iron is around. A handful of the yeast species scavenged enough iron out of their petri dishes to turn the blue dye orange. It was clear that the bacterial pathway retained its function within yeast.
Source:-University of Wisconsin-Madison