And bacteria are the Class A mechanics loading up on spare parts.
Our surroundings contain large amounts of strongly fragmented and damaged DNA, which is being degraded. Some of it may be thousands of years old. Laboratory experiments with microbes and various kinds of DNA have shown that bacteria take up very short and damaged DNA from the environment and passively integrate it in their own genome. Furthermore this mechanism has also been shown to work with a modern bacteria’s uptake of 43,000 years old mammoth DNA. The results are published now in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The discovery of this second-hand use of old or fragmented DNA may have major future consequences.
Particularly for hospitals, perhaps.
Postdoc Søren Overballe-Petersen from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark is first author on the paper and he says about the findings: “It is well-known that bacteria can take up long intact pieces of DNA but so far the assumption has been that short DNA fragments were biologically inactive. Now we have shown that this assumption was wrong. As long as you have just a tiny amount of DNA left over there is a possibility that bacteria can re-use the DNA. One consequence of this is in hospitals that have persistent problems with antibiotic resistance. In some cases they will have to start considering how to eliminate DNA remnants. So far focus has been on killing living pathogen bacteria but this is no longer enough in the cases where other bacteria afterwards can use the DNA fragments which contain the antibiotic resistance.”
Her’s the Abstract: (paywall)
Note that for any life form that can so easily engage in horizontal gene transfer, phylogenies based on Darwinian evolution (natural selection acting on random mutation) are now doubtful.
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Hat tip: Timothy Kershner