In biological systems, evolutionary innovations can spread not only from parent to offspring (i.e. vertical transmission), but also 'horizontally' between individuals, who may or may not be related. Nowhere is this more apparent than in bacteria, where novel ecological traits can spread rapidly within and between species through horizontal gene transfer (HGT). This important evolutionary process is predominantly a by-product of the infectious spread of mobile genetic elements (MGEs). We will discuss the ecological conditions that favour the spread of traits by HGT, the evolutionary and social consequences of sharing traits, and how HGT is shaped by inherent conflicts between bacteria and MGEs.This article is part of the themed issue 'Process and pattern in innovations from cells to societies'.
Keywords: accessory genome; horizontal gene transfer; lateral gene transfer; pan-genome.
© 2017 The Author(s).