Lateral gene transfer, bacterial genome evolution, and the Anthropocene

Michael R. Gillings*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

58 Citations (Scopus)


Lateral gene transfer (LGT) has significantly influenced bacterial evolution since the origins of life. It helped bacteria generate flexible, mosaic genomes and enables individual cells to rapidly acquire adaptive phenotypes. In turn, this allowed bacteria to mount strong defenses against human attempts to control their growth. The widespread dissemination of genes conferring resistance to antimicrobial agents has precipitated a crisis for modern medicine. Our actions can promote increased rates of LGT and also provide selective forces to fix such events in bacterial populations. For instance, the use of selective agents induces the bacterial SOS response, which stimulates LGT. We create hotspots for lateral transfer, such as wastewater systems, hospitals, and animal production facilities. Conduits of gene transfer between humans and animals ensure rapid dissemination of recent transfer events, as does modern transport and globalization. As resistance to antibacterial compounds becomes universal, there is likely to be increasing selection pressure for phenotypes with adverse consequences for human welfare, such as enhanced virulence, pathogenicity, and transmission. Improved understanding of the ecology of LGT could help us devise strategies to control this fundamental evolutionary process.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20-36
Number of pages17
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2017


  • antibiotic resistance
  • horizontal gene transfer
  • microbial ecology
  • mobile DNA
  • resistome

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