Much as people can exchange information instantaneously in the digital age, bacteria associated with humans and their livestock appear to freely and rapidly exchange genetic material related to human disease and antibiotic resistance through a mechanism called horizontal gene transfer (HGT). In a paper appearing in Nature online on October 30, 2011, researchers — led by Dr. Eric Alm of MIT's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Biological Engineering — say they've found evidence of a massive network of recent gene exchange connecting bacteria from around the world: 10,000 unique genes flowing via HGT among 2,235 bacterial genomes. HGT is an ancient method for bacteria from different lineages to acquire and share useful genetic information they didn't inherit from their parents. Scientists have long known about HGT and known that when a transferred gene confers a desirable trait, such as antibiotic resistance or pathogenicity, that gene may undergo positive selection and be passed on to a bacterium's own progeny, sometimes to the detriment of humans. For example, the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria is a very real threat, as seen in the rise of so-called "superbugs." But until now, scientists didn't know just how much of this information was being exchanged, or how rapidly. The MIT team's work illustrates the vast scale and rapid speed with which genes can proliferate across bacterial lineages. "We are finding [completely] identical genes in bacteria that are as divergent from each other as a human is to a yeast," says Dr. Alm, the Karl Van Tassel Associate Professor.
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