Complete-fosmid and fosmid-end sequences reveal frequent horizontal gene transfers in marine uncultured planktonic archaea

ISME J. 2011 Aug;5(8):1291-302. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2011.16. Epub 2011 Feb 24.


The extent of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) among marine pelagic prokaryotes and the role that HGT may have played in their adaptation to this particular environment remain open questions. This is partly due to the paucity of cultured species and genomic information for many widespread groups of marine bacteria and archaea. Molecular studies have revealed a large diversity and relative abundance of marine planktonic archaea, in particular of Thaumarchaeota (also known as group I Crenarchaeota) and Euryarchaeota of groups II and III, but only one species (the thaumarchaeote Candidatus Nitrosopumilus maritimus) has been isolated in pure culture so far. Therefore, metagenomics remains the most powerful approach to study these environmental groups. To investigate the impact of HGT in marine archaea, we carried out detailed phylogenetic analyses of all open reading frames of 21 archaeal 16S rRNA gene-containing fosmids and, to extend our analysis to other genomic regions, also of fosmid-end sequences of 12 774 fosmids from three different deep-sea locations (South Atlantic and Adriatic Sea at 1000 m depth, and Ionian Sea at 3000 m depth). We found high HGT rates in both marine planktonic Thaumarchaeota and Euryarchaeota, with remarkable converging values estimated from complete-fosmid and fosmid-end sequence analysis (25 and 21% of the genes, respectively). Most HGTs came from bacterial donors (mainly from Proteobacteria, Firmicutes and Chloroflexi) but also from other archaea and eukaryotes. Phylogenetic analyses showed that in most cases HGTs are shared by several representatives of the studied groups, implying that they are ancient and have been conserved over relatively long evolutionary periods. This, together with the functions carried out by these acquired genes (mostly related to energy metabolism and transport of metabolites across membranes), suggests that HGT has played an important role in the adaptation of these archaea to the cold and nutrient-depleted deep marine environment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Archaea / classification
  • Archaea / genetics*
  • Archaea / physiology
  • Crenarchaeota / classification
  • Crenarchaeota / genetics
  • Euryarchaeota / classification
  • Euryarchaeota / genetics
  • Gene Library
  • Gene Transfer, Horizontal*
  • Genes, Archaeal
  • Metagenomics
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Phylogeny
  • Plankton / classification
  • Plankton / genetics
  • RNA, Archaeal / genetics
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics


  • RNA, Archaeal
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S