Adaptive eukaryote-to-eukaryote lateral gene transfer: stress-related genes of algal origin in the closest unicellular relatives of animals


Aurora M. Nedelcu, Department of Biology, University of New Brunswick, PO Box 4400, Fredericton, NB, Canada E3B 5A3.
Tel.: +1 506 458 7463; fax: +1 506 453 3583;


In addition to mutation, gene duplication and recombination, the transfer of genetic material between unrelated species is now regarded as a potentially significant player in the shaping of extant genomes and the evolution and diversification of life. Although this is probably true for prokaryotes, the extent of such genetic exchanges in eukaryotes (especially eukaryote-to-eukaryote transfers) is more controversial and the selective advantage and evolutionary impact of such events are less documented. A laterally transferred gene could either be added to the gene complement of the recipient or replace the recipient’s homologue; whereas gene replacements can be either adaptive or stochastic, gene additions are most likely adaptive. Here, we report the finding of four stress-related genes (two ascorbate peroxidase and two metacaspase genes) of algal origin in the closest unicellular relatives of animals, the choanoflagellates. At least three of these sequences represent additions to the choanoflagellate gene complement, which is consistent with these transfers being adaptive. We suggest that these laterally acquired sequences could have provided the primitive choanoflagellates with additional or more efficient means to cope with stress, especially in relation to adapting to freshwater environments and/or sessile or colonial lifestyles.