Lateral genetic transfer (LGT) involves the movement of genetic material from one lineage into another and its subsequent incorporation into the new host genome via genetic recombination. Studies in individual taxa have indicated lateral origins for stretches of DNA of greatly varying length, from a few nucleotides to chromosome size. Here we analyze 1,462 sets of single-copy, putatively orthologous genes from 144 fully sequenced prokaryote genomes, asking to what extent complete genes and fragments of genes have been transferred and recombined in LGT. Using a rigorous phylogenetic approach, we find evidence for LGT in at least 476 (32.6%) of these 1,462 gene sets: 286 (19.6%) clearly show one or more "observable recombination breakpoints" within the boundaries of the open reading frame, while a further 190 (13.0%) yield trees that are topologically incongruent with the reference tree but do not contain a recombination breakpoint within the open reading frame. We refer to these gene sets as observable recombination breakpoint positive (ORB(+)) and negative (ORB(-)) respectively. The latter are prima facie instances of lateral transfer of an entire gene or beyond. We observe little functional bias between ORB(+) and ORB(-) gene sets, but find that incorporation of entire genes is potentially more frequent in pathogens than in nonpathogens. As ORB(+) gene sets are about 50% more common than ORB(-) sets in our data, the transfer of gene fragments has been relatively frequent, and the frequency of LGT may have been systematically underestimated in phylogenetic studies.
Keywords: comparative genomics; genetic recombination; genome evolution; horizontal genetic transfer; lateral genetic transfer.