Functional biogeography as evidence of gene transfer in hypersaline microbial communities

J. Jacob Parnell, Giovanni Rompato, Leigh C. Latta IV, Michael E. Pfrender, Joy D. van Nostrand, Zhili He, Jizhong Zhou, Gary Andersen, Patti Champine, Balasubramanian Ganesan, Bart C Weimer

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41 Scopus citations


Background: Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) plays a major role in speciation and evolution of bacteria and archaea by controlling gene distribution within an environment. However, information that links HGT to a natural community using relevant population-genetics parameters and spatial considerations is scarce. The Great Salt Lake (Utah, USA) provides an excellent model for studying HGT in the context of biogeography because it is a contiguous system with dispersal limitations due to a strong selective salinity gradient. We hypothesize that in spite of the barrier to phylogenetic dispersal, functional characteristics-in the form of HGT-expand beyond phylogenetic limitations due to selective pressure. Methodology and Results: To assay the functional genes and microorganisms throughout the GSL, we used a 16S rRNA oligonucleotide microarray (Phylochip) and a functional gene array (GeoChip) to measure biogeographic patterns of nine microbial communities. We found a significant difference in biogeography based on microarray analyses when comparing Sørensen similarity values for presence/absence of function and phylogeny (Student's t-test; p = 0.005). Conclusion and Significance: Biogeographic patterns exhibit behavior associated with horizontal gene transfer in that informational genes (16S rRNA) have a lower similarity than functional genes, and functional similarity is positively correlated with lake-wide selective pressure. Specifically, high concentrations of chromium throughout GSL correspond to an average similarity of chromium resistance genes that is 22% higher than taxonomic similarity. This suggests active HGT may be measured at the population level in microbial communities and these biogeographic patterns may serve as a model to study bacteria adaptation and speciation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12919
JournalPLoS One
Issue number9
StatePublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Medicine(all)


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