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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Lateral gene transfer of an ABC transporter complex between major constituents of the human gut microbiome

Conor J Meehan12 and Robert G Beiko2*

Author Affiliations

1 Faculty of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Dalhousie University, 5080 College Street, Halifax, NS, B3H 4R2, Canada

2 Faculty of Computer Science, 6050 University Avenue, Halifax, NS, B3H 1W5, Canada

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BMC Microbiology 2012, 12:248  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-12-248

Published: 1 November 2012



Several links have been established between the human gut microbiome and conditions such as obesity and inflammatory bowel syndrome. This highlights the importance of understanding what properties of the gut microbiome can affect the health of the human host. Studies have been undertaken to determine the species composition of this microbiome and infer functional profiles associated with such host properties. However, lateral gene transfer (LGT) between community members may result in misleading taxonomic attributions for the recipient organisms, thus making species-function links difficult to establish.


We identified a peptides/nickel transport complex whose components differed in abundance based upon levels of host obesity, and assigned the encoded proteins to members of the microbial community. Each protein was assigned to several distinct taxonomic groups, with moderate levels of agreement observed among different proteins in the complex. Phylogenetic trees of these proteins produced clusters that differed greatly from taxonomic attributions and indicated that habitat-directed LGT of this complex is likely to have occurred, though not always between the same partners.


These findings demonstrate that certain membrane transport systems may be an important factor within an obese-associated gut microbiome and that such complexes may be acquired several times by different strains of the same species. Additionally, an example of individual proteins from different organisms being transferred into one operon was observed, potentially demonstrating a functional complex despite the donors of the subunits being taxonomically disparate. Our results also highlight the potential impact of habitat-directed LGT on the resident microbiota.