Open Access Research article

A unique horizontal gene transfer event has provided the octocoral mitochondrial genome with an active mismatch repair gene that has potential for an unusual self-contained function

Jaret P Bilewitch and Sandie M Degnan*

Author Affiliations

School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:228  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-228

Published: 29 July 2011



The mitochondrial genome of the Octocorallia has several characteristics atypical for metazoans, including a novel gene suggested to function in DNA repair. This mtMutS gene is favored for octocoral molecular systematics, due to its high information content. Several hypotheses concerning the origins of mtMutS have been proposed, and remain equivocal, although current weight of support is for a horizontal gene transfer from either an epsilonproteobacterium or a large DNA virus. Here we present new and compelling evidence on the evolutionary origin of mtMutS, and provide the very first data on its activity, functional capacity and stability within the octocoral mitochondrial genome.


The mtMutS gene has the expected conserved amino acids, protein domains and predicted tertiary protein structure. Phylogenetic analysis indicates that mtMutS is not a member of the MSH family and therefore not of eukaryotic origin. MtMutS clusters closely with representatives of the MutS7 lineage; further support for this relationship derives from the sharing of a C-terminal endonuclease domain that confers a self-contained mismatch repair function. Gene expression analyses confirm that mtMutS is actively transcribed in octocorals. Rates of mitochondrial gene evolution in mtMutS-containing octocorals are lower than in their hexacoral sister-group, which lacks the gene, although paradoxically the mtMutS gene itself has higher rates of mutation than other octocoral mitochondrial genes.


The octocoral mtMutS gene is active and codes for a protein with all the necessary components for DNA mismatch repair. A lower rate of mitochondrial evolution, and the presence of a nicking endonuclease domain, both indirectly support a theory of self-sufficient DNA mismatch repair within the octocoral mitochondrion. The ancestral affinity of mtMutS to non-eukaryotic MutS7 provides compelling support for an origin by horizontal gene transfer. The immediate vector of transmission into octocorals can be attributed to either an epsilonproteobacterium in an endosymbiotic association or to a viral infection, although DNA viruses are not currently known to infect both bacteria and eukaryotes, nor mitochondria in particular. In consolidating the first known case of HGT into an animal mitochondrial genome, these findings suggest the need for reconsideration of the means by which metazoan mitochondrial genomes evolve.