Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Nature Beats Monsanto

In genetics there has been of late considerable interest in a phenomenon known as "horizontal gene transfer". This news release takes that concept to new heights.

ScienceDaily (Nov. 8, 2010) — Genetically modified plants can come about by natural means. A research group at Lund University in Sweden has described the details of such an event among higher plants. It is likely that the gene transfer was mediated by a parasite or a pathogen.
One of the consistent trends of late has been that the idea of "gene transfer" needs to widened because there is increasing evidence that genes are much mobile than we once believed. As it happens just last night I caught some snippets of a documentary about viruses. I was amazed to see that the HINI virus was composed of genes from a number of sources.

Even more amazing was that in a cell infected with two viruses the constant replication, with a relatively high error rate, allowed a mixing and matching of the two viral genomes. Now when you consider the extremely high replication rates that can occur you realise that viruses are emulating a very powerful mathematical strategy against our immune responses.

There was some uproar about the responses to the viral outbreaks in recent years. The strategy is based on the obvious fact when a viral outbreak occurs containment must be the first priority. In many cases we won't have time to determine just how dangerous the pathogen is. While immunology is making some great strides keep in mind that the task is almost herculean in its objectives. So be kind to immunologists, they are very important people.

In this news release the mode of gene transfer was quite odd. About 700,000 years ago part of a  chromosome was incorporated into the genome of another plant, the hypothesis this was probably mediated by a pathogen or sap sucking parasite. It has long been known that bacteria can share their genetic material, and over recent years the Weismann Barrier has been breached on numerous occasions, and we have a much better appreciation of just how mobile genes can be. In that light the diversity of Life is not so surprising.

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