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Discovery of jumping gene cluster tangles tree of life
Date:2/4/2011

ompeting organisms or to protect themselves from attacks. As a result, these types of compounds are the source of a number of important drugs, like penicillin and cyclosporin, as well as a number of natural poisons.

"Fungi produce an astonishing variety of drugs and poisons. Our discovery that one of the largest gene clusters responsible for making such a poison moved intact between species suggests that horizontal transfers of wholesale pathways may have contributed significantly to the generation of this diversity," Rokas said.

In the past, evolutionary research has focused on the passage of genes from parent to child, known as vertical gene transfer. This process, acted out over the eons of geological time, gives rise to the branching structure of the tree of life.

Since the 1980's, however, evolutionary scientists have become increasingly aware that horizontal or lateral gene transfer also plays a major role in evolution. In vertical gene transfer, all the genetic material in each new species come from a single ancestral species. In horizontal gene transfer, by contrast, species that receive bits of genetic material from its neighbors are directly related to a number of often unrelated species.

Horizontal gene transfer was first discovered in bacteria, and has been recognized as largely responsible for the problem of drug resistance. If one bacterium evolves a method for surviving a drug, this ability can spread rapidly to other unrelated microorganisms via horizontal gene transfer, substantially reducing the drug's effectiveness.

Though researchers now generally agree that horizontal gene transfer is relatively common among simple organisms like bacteria, they have continued to assume that it remained relatively rare among complex organisms like plants and animals.

"The thinking has been that there is very little horizontal gene transfer among plants and animals except for a few big, ancient events and may
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Contact: David F. Salisbury
david.salisbury@vanderbilt.edu
615-343-6803
Vanderbilt University
Source:Eurekalert  

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