Sexual isolation and speciation in bacteria

Genetica. 2002 Nov;116(2-3):359-70.


Like organisms from all other walks of life, bacteria are capable of sexual recombination. However, unlike most plants and animals, bacteria recombine only rarely, and when they do they are extremely promiscuous in their choice of sexual partners. There may be no absolute constraints on the evolutionary distances that can be traversed through recombination in the bacterial world, but interspecies recombination is reduced by a variety of factors, including ecological isolation, behavioral isolation, obstacles to DNA entry, restriction endonuclease activity, resistance to integration of divergent DNA sequences, reversal of recombination by mismatch repair, and functional incompatibility of recombined segments. Typically, individual bacterial species are genetically variable for most of these factors. Therefore, natural selection can modulate levels of sexual isolation, to increase the transfer of genes useful to the recipient while minimizing the transfer of harmful genes. Interspecies recombination is optimized when recombination involves short segments that are just long enough to transfer an adaptation, without co-transferring potentially harmful DNA flanking the adaptation. Natural selection has apparently acted to reduce sexual isolation between bacterial species. Evolution of sexual isolation is not a milestone toward speciation in bacteria, since bacterial recombination is too rare to oppose adaptive divergence between incipient species. Ironically, recombination between incipient bacterial species may actually foster the speciation process, by prohibiting one incipient species from out-competing the other to extinction. Interspecific recombination may also foster speciation by introducing novel gene loci from divergent species, allowing invasion of new niches.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / enzymology
  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Biological Evolution*
  • DNA Repair / physiology
  • DNA Restriction Enzymes / metabolism
  • Recombination, Genetic*
  • Species Specificity


  • DNA Restriction Enzymes