Gene stealing was the way to go for life on early earth

It was a bug eat bug world where you took what was needed to survive

The notion of the “jumping gene” that hops from one species to another has been known since the 1950, causing for example antibiotic resistance that helps superbugs like MRSA to survive. File photograph taken from the Dublin City of Science 2012 initiative.

The notion of the “jumping gene” that hops from one species to another has been known since the 1950, causing for example antibiotic resistance that helps superbugs like MRSA to survive. File photograph taken from the Dublin City of Science 2012 initiative.

 

It was a seriously tough neighbourhood back when the earth was young. It was a smash and grab world where if one species didn’t have the genes it needed to survive it just stole them from a neighbour, according to new research.

The findings are going to force a rewrite of how evolution works, says NUI Maynooth’s Prof James McInerney who was part of the team along with scientists from Germany and New Zealand.

“It completely changes the textbook standard models for evolution,” he says. “Evolution does occur but we have now discovered it is much more fantastic than before, it is awesome.”

The standard model says that most new traits emerged in early microorganisms primarily through mutation, spontaneous changes that either helped survival or caused death.

Not so the researchers found. Genetic changes in these primitive organisms called the archaea and the eubacteria were more likely to occur by stealing genes from one another. This “horizontal gene transfer” in turn caused evolution to occur by sudden large leaps and bounds and not just by mutation of a single gene, they write this afternoon in the journal Nature.

“There were significant flows of genes from one species to another. There was a constant borrowing and stealing of genes between species,” Prof McInerney says.

The notion of the “jumping gene” that hops from one species to another has been known since the 1950, causing for example antibiotic resistance that helps superbugs like MRSA to survive, he said. This is completely different however.

The scientists used powerful computers to search back through the genetic changes that took place in these early organisms. This showed when genes suddenly arrived to deliver new traits.

Most of the theft was perpetrated by the archaea, with this group of microorganisms five to 10 times more likely to take genes than the hapless eubacteria, but it was a two way flow cutting both ways.

Gene sharing like this couldn’t help a rabbit sprout wings, but in these simple cells that didn’t even have a nucleus horizontal gene transfer was the way to go. “If your neighbour started to use photosynthesis you might hope to evolve it over time but it was just easier to grab the genes and start photosynthesis immediately,” Prof McInerney says.

Their study showed the mechanism is “hugely important” to help explain how evolution proceeded during the development of life on our planet, he says.

ENDS

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.