Study shows unified process of evolution in bacteria and sexual eukaryotes and opens door to concept of ‘species’ in bacteria

April 5, 2012

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering

Bacteria are the most populous organisms on the planet. They thrive in almost every known environment, adapting to different habitats by means of genetic variations that provide the capabilities essential for survival. These genetic innovations arise from what scientists believe is a random mutation and exchange of genes and other bits of DNA among bacteria that sometimes confers an advantage, and which then becomes an intrinsic part of the genome.

But how an advantageous mutation spreads from a single bacterium to all the other bacteria in a population is an open scientific question. Does the gene containing an advantageous mutation pass from bacterium to bacterium, sweeping through an entire population on its own? Or does a single individual obtain the gene, then replicate its entire genome many times to form a new and better-adapted population of identical clones? Conflicting evidence supports both scenarios.

In a paper appearing in the April 6 issue of Science, researchers in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) provide evidence that advantageous mutations can sweep through populations on their own. The study reconciles the previously conflicting evidence by showing that after these gene sweeps, recombination becomes less frequent between bacterial strains from different populations, yielding a pattern of genetic diversity resembling that of a clonal population. 

This indicates that the process of evolution in bacteria is very similar to that of sexual eukaryotes (which do not pass their entire genome intact to their progeny) and suggests a unified method of evolution for Earth’s two major life forms: prokaryotes and eukaryotes.

The findings also get to the heart of another scientific question: how to delineate species of bacteria — or determine if the term “species” even applies to bacteria, which are typically identified as ecological populations and not species. If all bacteria in a population are clones from a common ancestor, the idea of species doesn’t apply. But if — as this new study shows — genes randomly shared among individuals can bring about a new, ecologically specialized population, use of the term may be warranted. 

“We found that the differentiation between populations was restricted to a few small patches in the genome,” says