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Pathogen-origin horizontally transferred genes contribute to the evolution of Lepidopteran insects

Zi-Wen Li1, Yi-Hong Shen1, Zhong-Huai Xiang1 and Ze Zhang12*

Author affiliations

1 The Key Sericultural Laboratory of Agricultural Ministry, Southwest University, Chongqing 400715, China

2 The Institute of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Chongqing University, Chongqing 400044, China

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:356  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-356

Published: 12 December 2011



Horizontal gene transfer (HGT), a source of genetic variation, is generally considered to facilitate hosts' adaptability to environments. However, convincing evidence supporting the significant contribution of the transferred genes to the evolution of metazoan recipients is rare.


In this study, based on sequence data accumulated to date, we used a unified method consisting of similarity search and phylogenetic analysis to detect horizontally transferred genes (HTGs) between prokaryotes and five insect species including Drosophila melanogaster, Anopheles gambiae, Bombyx mori, Tribolium castaneum and Apis mellifera. Unexpectedly, the candidate HTGs were not detected in D. melanogaster, An. gambiae and T. castaneum, and 79 genes in Ap. mellifera sieved by the same method were considered as contamination based on other information. Consequently, 14 types of 22 HTGs were detected only in the silkworm. Additionally, 13 types of the detected silkworm HTGs share homologous sequences in species of other Lepidopteran superfamilies, suggesting that the majority of these HTGs were derived from ancient transfer events before the radiation of Ditrysia clade. On the basis of phylogenetic topologies and BLAST search results, donor bacteria of these genes were inferred, respectively. At least half of the predicted donor organisms may be entomopathogenic bacteria. The predicted biochemical functions of these genes include four categories: glycosyl hydrolase family, oxidoreductase family, amino acid metabolism, and others.


The products of HTGs detected in this study may take part in comprehensive physiological metabolism. These genes potentially contributed to functional innovation and adaptability of Lepidopteran hosts in their ancient lineages associated with the diversification of angiosperms. Importantly, our results imply that pathogens may be advantageous to the subsistence and prosperity of hosts through effective HGT events at a large evolutionary scale.

Horizontal gene transfer; Insect evolution; Lepidoptera evolution; Functional innovation; Pathogenic bacteria