Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Foreword
  • Published:

Horizontal gene transfer: perspectives at a crossroads of scientific disciplines


Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) has a crucial role in microbial evolution, in shaping the structure and function of microbial communities and in controlling a myriad of environmental and public-health problems. Here, Barth F. Smets and Tamar Barkay assess the importance of HGT and place the selection of articles in this Focus issue in context.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: The 5 steps of horizontal gene flow.


  1. Nesbo, C. L. & Doolittle, W. F. Targeting clusters of transferred genes in Thermotoga maritima. Environ. Microbiol. 5, 1144–1154 (2003).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Woese, C. R. Interpreting the universal phylogenetic tree. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 97, 8392–8396 (2000).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Bapteste, E. et al. Do orthologous gene phylogenies really support tree-thinking? BMC Evol. Biol. 5, 33 (2005).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Coombs, J. M. & Barkay, T. Molecular evidence for the evolution of metal homeostasis genes by lateral gene transfer in bacteria from the deep terrestrial subsurface. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 70, 1698–1707 (2004).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. McGowan, C., Fulthorpe, R., Wright, A. & Tiedje. J. M. Evidence for interspecies gene transfer in the evolution of 2, 4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid degraders. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 64, 4089–4092 (1998).

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  6. Monroe, S. & Polk, R. Antimicrobial use and bacterial resistance. Curr. Opin. Microbiol. 3, 496–501 (2000).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Levy, S. B. & Marshall, B. Antibacterial resistance worldwide: causes, challenges and responses. Nature Med. 10, S122–S129 (2004).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Heinemann, J. A. & Traavik, T. Problems in monitoring horizontal gene transfer in field trials of transgenic plants. Nature Biotechnol. 22, 1105–1109 (2004).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Nielsen, K. M. & Townsend, J. P. Monitoring and modeling horizontal gene transfer. Nature Biotechnol. 22, 1110–1114 (2004).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Springael, D. & Top, E. M. Horizontal gene transfer and microbial adaptation to xenobiotics: new types of mobile genetic elements and lessons from ecological studies. Trends Microbiol. 12, 53–58 (2004).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


The authors would like to thank the US National Science Foundation (BES pogramme) and the US Department of Energy (NABIR programme) for support of research on HGT in their laboratories. This article and special issue were inspired by a workshop on 'Horizontal Gene Flow in Microbial Communities' that was co-chaired by the authors in Warrenton, Virginia, USA, in June 2004, and sponsored by the National Science Foundation (MO/MIP programme) and the Department of Energy (NABIR programme). These agencies, as well as the US National Aeronautics and Space Agency (Astrobiology Programme) provided gracious support to the production of this issue.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Barth F. Smets.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Smets, B., Barkay, T. Horizontal gene transfer: perspectives at a crossroads of scientific disciplines. Nat Rev Microbiol 3, 675–678 (2005).

Download citation

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing