Sisterhood of the Traveling Genes

By: Helen Beilinson

Unlike humans, bacteria reproduce asexually (yet another reason why I’m happy I’m not a bacterium). This means that one bacterium splits itself into two, giving rise to two daughter cells. The two asexual offspring have the same genome as their one parent. Although keeping the same genome as your parent has a lot of benefits (moms always know best), it can also lead to problems; the lack of new genes sometimes makes it hard for bacteria to adapt to changing environments. Luckily for them, bacteria have found lots of ways of acquiring new genes to survive new environments. One such strategy is getting genes from other bacteria through a process called ‘horizontal gene transfer’ (as opposed to ‘vertical gene transfer’ where parents give genes to their offspring). Horizontal gene transfer doesn’t just occur between bacterial species—it has also happened between bacteria and eukaryotes, which are much more complex organisms. And recently, scientists from the University of Washington found that horizontal gene transfer has brought bacterial genes into animal genomes.

The researchers, led by Joseph D. Moungos, published a study in a recent issue of Nature. They found a bacterial gene called Tae that has repeatedly entered eukaryotic lineages through horizontal gene transfer. Many bacteria have Tae proteins, which function as antimicrobials to kill other bacteria. To do this, Tae breaks down the layer of protection that surrounds the bacteria, called the cell wall. The bacteria that Tae targets actually have two cell walls—an inner wall and outer wall. Tae goes in between the two walls and breaks down a sugar-rich structural protein called peptidoglycan. By targeting peptidoglycan, Tae essentially makes the two cell walls collapse in on each other, killing the bacteria. This group found that at least six times in history, eukaryotes have gotten this gene from bacteria to use as their own. When they looked at the animal versions of the proteins, termed Dae, they discovered that their function in animals is the same as in bacteria; Dae proteins are antimicrobial agents that target peptidoglycan.

The experiments initially showing that Dae has antimicrobial function were performed in a test tube, outside an actual organism. To investigate whether Dae has antimicrobial function within organisms, this study looked at an animal that got Tae from bacteria—the deer tick. Deer ticks can spread the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, which results in fevers, headaches, and rashes, and can lead to more serious symptoms if untreated. Borrelia burgdorferi is one bacterium that can cause Lyme disease in humans. It moves from person to person by living in ticks and transmitted through tick bites. To see if Dae works as an antimicrobial in deer ticks, the scientists removed the Dae protein from the deer ticks and looked for changes in the amount of B. burgdorferi. Turns out that without Dae, deer ticks have more B. burgdorferi. Dae restricts the population size of B. burgdorferi can get in the deer tick by killing the bacteria.

 Collectively, bacteria harbor heaps of antimicrobial peptides. This group looked at one such protein in a defined animal species. If one protein has been transferred to eukaryotic genomes six times in the species that they looked at, this implies that with the thousands of other antimicrobial peptides and thousands of other animals, it is highly probable that many other bacterial genes have been transferred into animals. Who knows, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad being a little bacterial.