Almost all cellular life forms are hosts to diverse genetic parasites with various levels of autonomy including plasmids, transposons and viruses. Theoretical modeling of the evolution of primordial replicators indicates that parasites (cheaters) necessarily evolve in such systems and can be kept at bay primarily via compartmentalization. Given the (near) ubiquity, abundance and diversity of genetic parasites, the question becomes pertinent: are such parasites intrinsic to life? At least in prokaryotes, the persistence of parasites is linked to the rate of horizontal gene transfer (HGT). We mathematically derive the threshold value of the minimal transfer rate required for selfish element persistence, depending on the element duplication and loss rates as well as the cost to the host. Estimation of the characteristic gene duplication, loss and transfer rates for transposons, plasmids and virus-related elements in multiple groups of diverse bacteria and archaea indicates that most of these rates are compatible with the long term persistence of parasites. Notably, a small but non-zero rate of HGT is also required for the persistence of non-parasitic genes. We hypothesize that cells cannot tune their horizontal transfer rates to be below the threshold required for parasite persistence without experiencing highly detrimental side-effects. As a lower boundary to the minimum DNA transfer rate that a cell can withstand, we consider the process of genome degradation and mutational meltdown of populations through Muller's ratchet. A numerical assessment of this hypothesis suggests that microbial populations cannot purge parasites while escaping Muller's ratchet. Thus, genetic parasites appear to be virtually inevitable in cellular organisms.
Keywords: Muller's ratchet; genetic parasites; homologous recombination; horizontal gene transfer; mathematical modeling.
Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution 2016. This work is written by US Government employees and is in the public domain in the US.