Horizontal gene transfer in the phytosphere


Author for correspondence: Jan Dirk van Elsas Tel: +31 317 476210 Fax: +31 317 423110 Email: j.d.vanelsas@plant.wag-ur.nl


Here, the ecological aspects of gene transfer processes between bacteria in the phytosphere are examined in the context of emerging evidence for the dominant role that horizontal gene transfer (HGT) has played in the evolutionary shaping of bacterial communities. Moreover, the impact of the putative capture of genetic material by bacteria from plants is discussed. Examples are provided that illustrate how mobile genetic elements (MGEs) influence the behaviour of bacteria in their natural habitat, especially in structured communities such as biofilms on plant surfaces. This community behaviour is used as a framework to pose questions on the evolutionary role and significance of gene transfer processes in plant-associated habitats. Selection within the highly structured phytosphere is likely to represent a dominant force shaping the genetic make-up of plant-associated bacterial communities. Current understanding of the triggering and impact of horizontal gene transfer, however, remains limited by our lack of understanding of the nature of the selective forces that act on bacteria in situ. The individual, colony, population and community level selection benefits imposed by the ability to use specific carbon sources or survive selective compounds are clear, but it is not always possible to assess what drives gene transfer and persistence. The role of HGT in the adaptation of host bacteria to their environmental niche is still not fully understood.