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05/10/2013 (Added to site)
Author(s): Kotnik, T.

Lightning-triggered electroporation and electrofusion as possible contributors to natural horizontal gene transfer

Journal: Physics of Life Reviews, 10/3 (2013), pp. 351-370
DOI: 10.1016/j.plrev.2013.05.001
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Abstract: Phylogenetic studies show that horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is a significant contributor to genetic variability of prokaryotes, and was perhaps even more abundant during the early evolution. Hitherto, research of natural HGT has mainly focused on three mechanisms of DNA transfer: conjugation, natural competence, and viral transduction. This paper discusses the feasibility of a fourth such mechanism — cell electroporation and/or electrofusion triggered by atmospheric electrostatic discharges (lightnings). A description of electroporation as a phenomenon is followed by a review of experimental evidence that electroporation of prokaryotes in aqueous environments can result in release of non-denatured DNA, as well as uptake of DNA from the surroundings and transformation. Similarly, a description of electrofusion is followed by a review of experiments showing that prokaryotes devoid of cell wall can electrofuse into hybrids expressing the genes of their both precursors. Under sufficiently fine-tuned conditions, electroporation and electrofusion are efficient tools for artificial transformation and hybridization, respectively, but the quantitative analysis developed here shows that conditions for electroporation-based DNA release, DNA uptake and transfor­mation, as well as for electrofusion are also present in many natural aqueous environments exposed to lightnings. Electroporation is thus a plausible contributor to natural HGT among prokaryotes, and could have been particularly important during the early evolution, when the other mechanisms might have been scarcer or nonexistent. In modern prokaryotes, natural absence of the cell wall is rare, but it is reasonable to assume that the wall has formed during a certain stage of evolution, and at least prior to this, electrofusion could also have contributed to natural HGT. The concluding section outlines several guidelines for assessment of the feasibility of lightning-triggered HGT.



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