Background: Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) plays a central role in microbial evolution. Our understanding of the mechanisms, frequency, and taxonomic range of HGT in polymicrobial environments is limited, as we currently rely on historical HGT events inferred from genome sequencing and studies involving cultured microorganisms. We lack approaches to observe ongoing HGT in microbial communities.
Results: To address this knowledge gap, we developed a DNA sequencing-based "transductomics" approach that detects and characterizes microbial DNA transferred via transduction. We validated our approach using model systems representing a range of transduction modes and show that we can detect numerous classes of transducing DNA. Additionally, we show that we can use this methodology to obtain insights into DNA transduction among all major taxonomic groups of the intestinal microbiome.
Conclusions: The transductomics approach that we present here allows for the detection and characterization of genes that are potentially transferred between microbes in complex microbial communities at the time of measurement and thus provides insights into real-time ongoing horizontal gene transfer. This work extends the genomic toolkit for the broader study of mobile DNA within microbial communities and could be used to understand how phenotypes spread within microbiomes. Video Abstract.