Horizontal transfer is the passage of genetic material between genomes by means other than parent-to-offspring inheritance. Although the transfer of genes is thought to be crucial in prokaryotic evolution, few instances of horizontal gene transfer have been reported in multicellular eukaryotes; instead, most cases involve transposable elements. With over 200 cases now documented, it is possible to assess the importance of horizontal transfer for the evolution of transposable elements and their host genomes. We review criteria for detecting horizontal transfers and examine recent examples of the phenomenon, shedding light on its mechanistic underpinnings, including the role of host-parasite interactions. We argue that the introduction of transposable elements by horizontal transfer in eukaryotic genomes has been a major force propelling genomic variation and biological innovation.
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