A Blog by Ed Yong

When bacteria merge – two species are turning into one

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHumans have been blamed for the disappearance of species before but never quite like this. Scientists at the University of Oxford have found evidence that two species of bacteria are merging into one. The two species are swapping genetic material at such a high rate that they are on the road to sharing a single, common genome. Their genetic merger is probably the result of being thrust into a new environment – the intestines of heavily farmed chickens, cattle and other domesticated livestock.

Campylobacter.jpgThe two bacteria in question – Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coli – are two of the most common causes of gastroenteritis, or food poisoning, in the world. They infect a broad range of animals including mammals, birds and even insects. The two shared a common ancestor and their housekeeping genes – essential genes that are always switched on – are about 87% identical. They are currently recognised as separate species but it looks like some populations are headed back towards a unified direction.

To swap or not to swap

Classifying bacterial species and building family trees for them is never straightforward. Unlike multi-celled creatures, which must content themselves with passing genes on to their offspring, bacteria can happily trade genetic material with their neighbours through a process called conjugation.

Earlier experiments from the lab of Martin Maiden showed that C.jejuni and C.coli are indeed exchanging genetic material. Samuel Sheppard, working in Maiden’s lab, carried on the work by comparing the sequences of seven housekeeping genes in almost 3,000 samples from the two species, taken from a wide range of locations.

Broilerchickens.jpgSheppard found that the two bacteria do still maintain a reasonably distinct identity. Most of the combinations of sequences could be assigned to one or the other, although 11% of those classified as C.coli contained genes that were donated from C.jejuni. Clearly, the genes of the two bacteria are clearly mingling, and more often than not, it was a one-way swap, with C.jejuni donating genes and C.coli receiving them.

The analysis also revealed that C.coli has split into three distinct genetic lineages and the first and largest group was the heaviest importer of C.jejuni genes. Almost 19% of its genes came from C.jejuni and unlike the other two groups, it donated a fair few genes in return.

Domestic despeciation

Sheppard suggests that this swapping is a recent development. The fact that the other two C.coli groups participate in the exchange to a much lesser extent suggests that it started happening after the three lineages split. The imported genes were almost all identical to their counterparts in C.jejuni suggesting that they hadn’t had time to change in their new hosts.

The analysis showed that the first lineage of C.coli is converging with C.jejuni at high speed, about four times faster than the rate of change that separated the two species in the first place. Unless some strong evolutionary pressure prevents C.jejuni sequences from taking hold in C.coli, Sheppard thinks that the two species will inevitably converge into a single entity – a case of “despeciation” in progress.

The two species originally split as they came to colonise different and physically separated habitats. For example, C.jejuni is the dominant species in wild birds while C.coli rules the guts of pigs. However, certain hosts provide them with a chance to mingle and these include the chickens and cattle that are so intensely reared by humans. The digestive systems of our livestock brought the physical barriers that separated the two species crashing down, allowing them to trade genes after millions of years of separation.

The genetic sequences of a C.jejuni sample can give away the identity of the host animal it came from. And when Sheppard analysed the genes that had found their way into C.coli, he found that they were indistinguishable from those hailing from farm animals. However, he cautions that the theory still needs to be tested more carefully and we will need an even wider range of samples to do it.

Sheppard suggests that these hybrids may become more and more common as human activity degrades environments that have acted as barriers between closely related species. At the same time, we create new habitats like intensive farms and the drainage areas from mines, that could provide new opportunities for hybrids to exploit.

Reference: doi:Sheppard, S.K., McCarthy, N.D., Falush, D., Maiden, M.C. (2008). Convergence of Campylobacter Species: Implications for Bacterial Evolution. Science, 320(5873), 237-239. DOI: 10.1126/science.1155532

Images: Chickens by Martin Maiden and Campylobacter by De Wood and Chris Pooley

14 thoughts on “When bacteria merge – two species are turning into one

  1. Umm….Isn’t this 2 species into 3? Unless the two species that started die, I would say the new environmental niche made by humans has created a species.

  2. Do you know what the implications for the animals and humans might be of this merger i.e. does it pose a heightened health risk?

  3. I would be surprised if the merged bacterium ends up posing any more of a health risk than the existing species as the imported genes haven’t really changed from their original forms.
    And BAllanJ – erm, yes, well, I guess, if you’re going to use logic:-)

  4. “I predict that it won’t take long for creationists to jump on this as proof that “Darwinism”‘s branching tree of life is all wrong.”
    They would of course be wrong to suppose that this case could be used as evidence against common descent, but they would not be wrong to point out that it is a fascinating violation of a long-standing assumption: that limbs on the tree of life may only split, and never grow together.
    Bacteria are awesome. It seems like everything we learn about them is another slap in the face of our sexually reproducing, diploid-centric outlook.

  5. They would of course be wrong to suppose that this case could be used as evidence against common descent

    Of course. But being obviously, monumentally, head-smackingly wrong has never stopped them before.

    a long-standing assumption: that limbs on the tree of life may only split

    Of course, there are things like retroviral insertions and other infections that allow genes to travel between species, so this isn’t entirely unprecedented.

  6. To carry on the metaphor, some parts of the tree are just a jumble of indistinguishable foliage. See this PNAS paper from last year which argued that some types of Archaea mix genes to such an extent that the species concept just can’t be applied to them.
    And if you like interspecies gene transfer, you might also like this story I wrote about last year which showed an entire Wolbachia genome being integrated into the genome of a species of Drosophila.

  7. Ed, don’t give up on the two merging into one just yet. Your original presentation might be right to describe it as despeciation of two species into one given that one of the species is primarily the genetic donor and the other primarily a recipient. That suggests that the recipient line may be converted into the donor line, albeit with some residual differences, but not enough to qualify as a new and distinct third species, rather as merely a subspecies/variant of the preexisting donor species. Yes?

  8. Hybrid speciation is actually quite common among plants, with irises and sunflowers providing excellent examples. It has also been documented in animals. The only remaining question is when we biologists are going to stop acting like monophyly mirrors nature.

  9. I too wonder what kind of illness this could cause, mabye this could be a spark to get people doing something about bird flu, because if H5N1 found a way to merge with a human-carriable flu like this, it could make a human-bird flu.

  10. I predict that it won’t take long for creationists to jump on this as proof that “Darwinism”‘s branching tree of life is all wrong.

    Incidentally, Casey Luskin used this exact argument on TV the other day. I wanna say the video is up on ERV’s blog, and on Pharyngula as well.
    (I’m a scienceblogs junkie)

  11. “I too wonder what kind of illness this could cause, mabye this could be a spark to get people doing something about bird flu” C. jejuni causes gastroenteritis, so I don’t know how well it would merge with flu-type things.
    What would be really interesting to find out is what happens to my phages while all this is happening. There are specific ones that effect C. jejuni or C. coli, it would be interesting to see which, if any of them, can infect this new merged species.

  12. Microorganisms simply follow a different ruleset than large, complex creatures like mammals. And why is there an assumption that this only occurs in an artificial environment? Consider the possibility that microorganism (MO)1 “ingests” material X and secretes Y. Then there is MO2 who ingests Y and secretes Z. Through this process, and the close proximity that MO1 and MO2, a new MO3 could form that ingests X and secretes Z. Just a thought.

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