Trans-Extremophile Para-Sex

Cells of Haloferax volcanii showing their cup-like morphology

More than twenty years ago, an extra-ordinary mode of para-sexual genetic exchange was found to occur between cells of the halophilic archaeon Haloferax volcanii, an extremophile isolated from the Dead Sea. This process involves first, cell fusion producing heterodiploid cells. In this state, parental chromosomes can recombine, hence producing novel hybrid daughter cells after cell separation.

Haloferax mediterranei

Naor et al. have now shown that this mechanism of genetic exchange can also occur between cells of H. volcanii, and those of a related species – Haloferax mediterranei. H. mediterranei was originally isolated from a saltern near Alicante in Spain, and shares on average 86.6% sequence identity in protein-coding genes with H. volcanii. Assaying for chromosomal markers, it was found that interspecies cell fusion occurs at a frequency of 4.2 x 10-5, less than one order of magnitude less frequently than between H. volcanii cells (1.0 x 10-4). Of intraspecies fusions, 62% resulted in genetic recombination, whereas only 8% of interspecies fusions did. Although these figures sound quite small, in comparison to modes of genetic exchange between bacterial species, this inter-species genetic interchange occurred  a few orders of magnitude more efficiently.

Analysing a number of hybrid genomes, Naor et al. found that recombinant fragments ranged in size between 310 kb and 530 kb – huge genomic portions, with respect to most known bacterial horizontal genetic transfer mechanisms. Recombination occurs at areas higher sequence identity, such as transfer RNA genes. As these hybrids were isolated by selection for a specific genetic marker, it is quite conceivable, that higher proportions of the genomes can be transferred by this process.

This form of genetic exchange has important implications for archaeal speciation and evolution. High rates of recombination can act as a homogenising force – unlinking alleles faster than genes can diversify. The authors therefore suggest that geographical isolation may be the primary force in archaeal speciation. Further experiments testing the efficiency of this parasexual genetic exchange mechanism between other Haloferax species, and more information on halophilic archaeal ecology will help to clarify these issues. It will also be interesting to examine more hybrid genomes derived from other selection experiments to find out just how extensive interspecies recombination can be and whether there are any directional biases in transfer.

Naor A, Lapierre P, Mevarech M, Papke RT, & Gophna U (2012). Low species barriers in halophilic archaea and the formation of recombinant hybrids. Current biology : CB, 22 (15), 1444-8 PMID: 22748314

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