Neisseria gonorrhoeae is a nimble bacterium, and past master at adapting itself to resist the challenge of our antibiotics. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at this latest accolade: to have been the first proven case of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) between organisms as disparate as the bacterium and a human being! A recent study claims to demonstrate that Neisseria gonorrhoeae has integrated human genetic material into its own genome, and that this development is of recent evolutionary origin. Horizontal (inter-species) transfer of genetic material is, of course, the means by which these organisms evolve – along with vertical (inter-generation) transfer. But transfer from mammal to bacterium has not, it seems, been recorded – until now.
There is actually a good reason why it should be Neisseria gonorrhoeae of all bacteria that gains this place in history. Its exclusive relationship to its human host seems to have been a characteristic that has facilitated the identification of the transferred genetic material. As for whether it derives any advantage from this particular adaptation, or whether it offers a clue to the gonococcus’s nimble ability to continually adapt and survive in its human host, we really don’t know yet. But this discovery may turn out to have important implications for our future understanding of its success.
Mark T.Anderson and H. Steven Seifert, “Opportunity and Means: Horizontal Gene Transfer from the Human Host to a Bacterial Pathogen”, mBio 2011