Nucleotide sequence analysis, and more recently whole genome analysis, shows that bacterial evolution has often proceeded by horizontal gene flow between different species and genera. In bacteria, gene transfer takes place by transformation, transduction, or conjugation and this review examines the roles of these gene transfer processes, between different bacteria, in a wide variety of ecological niches in the natural environment. This knowledge is necessary for our understanding of plasmid evolution and ecology, as well as for risk assessment. The rise and spread of multiple antibiotic resistance plasmids in medically important bacteria are consequences of intergeneric gene transfer coupled to the selective pressures posed by the increasing use and misuse of antibiotics in medicine and animal feedstuffs. Similarly, the evolution of degradative plasmids is a response to the increasing presence of xenobiotic pollutants in soil and water. Finally, our understanding of the role of horizontal gene transfer in the environment is essential for the evaluation of the possible consequences of the deliberate environmental release of natural or recombinant bacteria for agricultural and bioremediation purposes.
Copyright 1999 Academic Press.