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Journal Article

Can mobile genetic elements rescue genes from extinction?


van Dijk,  Bram
Department Microbial Population Biology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, Max Planck Society;

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van Dijk, B. (2020). Can mobile genetic elements rescue genes from extinction? Current Genetics, 66(6), 1069-1071. doi:10.1007/s00294-020-01104-9.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0009-FBE3-C
Bacteria and other prokaryotes evolve primarily through rapid changes in their gene content by quickly losing and gaining genes whenever an ecological opportunity emerges. As gene loss and horizontal gene transfer (HGT) appear to be the most common events across the prokaryotic tree of life, we need to think beyond gradual sequence evolution if we wish to understand the microbial world. Especially genes that reside on mobile genetic elements (MGEs) may spread much more rapidly through a microbial population than genes that reside on the bacterial chromosome. This raises the question: why are some genes associated with MGEs, while others are not? Here, I briefly review a recently proposed class of genes for which we have coined the term “rescuable genes”. The fitness effect of carrying these genes is so small, either constantly or on average, that they are prone to be lost from a microbial population. I argue that HGT, even when costly to the individual cells, may play an important role in maintaining these rescuable genes in microbial communities.