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Phylogenetic analyses do not support horizontal gene transfers from bacteria to vertebrates


Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) has long been recognized as a principal force in the evolution of genomes1. Genome sequences of Archaea and Bacteria have revealed the existence of genes whose similarity to loci in distantly related organisms is explained most parsimoniously by HGT events2,3,4. In most multicellular organisms, such genetic fixation can occur only in the germ line. Therefore, it is notable that the publication of the human genome reports 113 incidents of direct HGT between bacteria and vertebrates5, without any apparent occurrence in evolutionary intermediates, that is, non-vertebrate eukaryotes. Phylogenetic analysis arguably provides the most objective approach for determining the occurrence and directionality of HGT6,7. Here we report a phylogenetic analysis of 28 proposed HGT genes, whose presence in the human genome had been confirmed by polymerase chain reaction (PCR)5. The results indicate that most putative HGT genes are present in more anciently derived eukaryotes (many such sequences available in non-vertebrate EST databases) and can be explained in terms of descent through common ancestry. They are, therefore, unlikely to be examples of direct HGT from bacteria to vertebrates.

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Figure 1: Hypothetical phylogenetic trees showing various evolutionary models relating to acceptance or rejection of HGT.
Figure 2: Neighbour-joining phylogenetic trees on the basis of PAM Dayhoff sequence-divergence matrixes, showing evolutionary history of various loci from Table 1.


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Correspondence to Michael J. Stanhope or James R. Brown.

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Stanhope, M., Lupas, A., Italia, M. et al. Phylogenetic analyses do not support horizontal gene transfers from bacteria to vertebrates. Nature 411, 940–944 (2001).

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