Horizontal transfer of expressed genes in a parasitic flowering plant

Horizontal transfer of expressed genes in a parasitic flowering plant

Zhenxiang Xi, Robert K Bradley, Kenneth J Wurdack, K.M. Wong, M. Sugumaran, Kirsten Bomblies, Joshua S Rest and Charles C Davis

BMC Genomics 2012, 13:227 doi:10.1186/1471-2164-13-227

Background
Recent studies have shown that plant genomes have undergone rampant horizontal gene transfer (HGT). In plant parasitic systems HGT appears to be facilitated by the intimate physical association between the parasite and its host. HGT in these systems has been invoked when a DNA sequence obtained from a parasite is placed phylogenetically very near to its host rather than with its closest relatives. Studies of HGT in parasitic plants have relied largely on the fortuitous discovery of gene phylogenies that indicate HGT, and no broad systematic search for HGT has been undertaken in parasitic systems where it is most expected to occur.

Results
We analyzed the transcriptomes of the holoparasite Rafflesia cantleyi and its obligate host Tetrastigma rafflesiae using phylogenomic approaches. Our analyses show that several dozen actively transcribed genes, most of which appear to be encoded in the nuclear genome, are likely of host origin. We also find that hundreds of vertically inherited genes (VGT) in this parasitic plant exhibit codon usage properties that are more similar to its host than to its closest relatives.

Conclusions
Our results establish for the first time a substantive number of HGTs in a plant host-parasite system. The elevated rate of unidirectional host-to-parasite gene transfer raises the possibility that HGTs may provide a fitness benefit to Rafflesia for maintaining these genes. Finally, a similar convergence in codon usage of VGTs has been shown in microbes with high HGT rates, which may help to explain the increase of HGTs in these parasitic plants.

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