Natural GMOs Part 90: Genes move between species in fungi

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(Photomicrograph of Aspergillus nidulans, the species of mold that appears to have been the source of the 22-gene cluster that jumped to Podospora anserina, an unrelated species of mold. The Aspergillus genus contains a number of species that are beneficial and harmful to humans. (Creative Commons licensed Image via Özgür Bayram and Gerhard Braus)
GMO Pundit just been highlighting gene movements occurring naturally among bacterial species – the so called horizontal gene movements (HGT). But with the extensive decoding of the DNA of numerous organisms that has taken place this last 5 years or so, many more instances of gene movement between species are turning up. Fungi turn out to be no exception when it comes to such movements.
Vanderbilt University Jumping Gene webpage published earlier this year has a dramatically colourful news story about gene movement in fungi:

Since the days of Darwin, the “tree of life” has been the preeminent metaphor for the process of evolution, reflecting the gradual branching and changing of individual species.
The discovery that a large cluster of genes appears to have jumped directly from one species of fungus to another, however, significantly strengthens the argument that a different metaphor, such as a mosaic, may be more appropriate.
“The fungi are telling us something important about evolution … something we didn’t know,” said Antonis Rokas, assistant professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt. He and research associate Jason Slot reported their discovery in the Jan. 25 issue of the journal Current Biology.
Ancient gene cluster jump found between unrelated moldsRokas and Slot discovered that millions of years ago, a cluster of 23 genes jumped from one strain of mold commonly found on starchy foods like bread and potatoes, Aspergillus, to another strain of mold that lives in herbivore dung and specializes in breaking down plant fibers, Podospora.
The findings came as a major surprise, as there are only a handful of cases in recent evolutionary history where this type of gene transfer between organisms, known as horizontal gene transfer, has been reported in complex cells like those found in plants, animals and fungi.
“Because most people didn’t believe that such large gene clusters could be transferred horizontally, they haven’t looked for them and they haven’t been found,” Rokas said.
Rokas and Slot detected the unprecedented gene cluster transfer during a detailed comparison of the entire genomes of nearly 100 species of fungi. The primary goal of their research is to identify the most reliable methods for determining the evolutionary relationships of species of all kinds. In the course of their analysis, they discovered the 23-gene capture.

So even genes for toxins can move around among different fungi. Gosh! Nature certainly serves up some nasty surprises!

Papers on this topic:
Richards, Thomas A.  Genome evolution: horizontal movements in the fungi. Current Biology 21:R166-R167.
Slot, J.C., and Rokas, A. 2011. Horizontal transfer of a large and highly toxic secondary metabolic gene cluster between fungi. Curr. Biol. 21, 134–139.
(This is number 90 in a series on Natural GMOs. Natural GMOs Part 89 was this post.)

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David Tribe is an applied geneticist, teaching graduate/undergrad courses in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology at the University of Melbourne.