Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Update and oceanic gene transfer

It's fall break! At last I can catch my breath. Over the past month or so, things have been put off, including this blog. I've been saving up interesting papers to talk about, so this week I'll try to get some posts up about these. Meanwhile, I submitted my response to Senter to JEB. We'll see how it goes.

A couple weeks back in Science, McDaniel et al. reported an immensely exciting result, but I don't recall that it got a lot of press. They looked at "gene transfer agents" (GTAs), which are virus-like particles produced by alpha proteobacteria that can transfer random bits of genomes between different species of bacteria. Looking at nine strains of marine alpha proteobacteria grown in simulated ecological conditions, McDaniel et al. found that these bacteria produced GTAs and that they increased the estimated gene transfer in the ocean by a factor of thousands to hundreds of millions. Hundreds of millions. That's a lot.

The implications of this research for creationism are huge. On the one hand, I think this adds to the growing evidence that we need to stop thinking of bacteria as simple organisms. Joe Francis suggests that they should be seen as a sort of biotic matrix that makes the inert physical environment livable for macro-organisms. The idea that individual bacterial cells can readily transfer genes back and forth really expands our understanding of how such a bio-matrix could work.

Further, a long time back, Kurt Wise speculated that viruses could act in some cases like gene transfer agents. So maybe these results have some implications for the origin of viruses? Someone should look into that...

In any event, it's a very interesting paper.

McDaniel et al. 2010. High Frequency of Horizontal Gene Transfer in the Oceans. Science 330:50.

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