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Background: Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is relatively common in plant mitochondrial genomes but the mechanisms, extent and consequences of transfer remain largely unknown. Previous results indicate that parasitic plants are often involved as either transfer donors or recipients, suggesting that direct contact between parasite and host facilitates genetic transfer among plants.
Results: In order to uncover the mechanistic details of plant-to-plant HGT, the extent and evolutionary fate of transfer was investigated between two groups: the parasitic genus Cuscuta and a small clade of Plantago species. A broad polymerase chain reaction (PCR) survey of mitochondrial genes revealed that at least three genes (atp1, atp6 and matR) were recently transferred from Cuscuta to Plantago. Quantitative PCR assays show that these three genes have a mitochondrial location in the one species line of Plantago examined. Patterns of sequence evolution suggest that these foreign genes degraded into pseudogenes shortly after transfer and reverse transcription (RT)- PCR analyses demonstrate that none are detectably transcribed. Three cases of gene conversion were detected between native and foreign copies of the atp1 gene. The identical phylogenetic distribution of the three foreign genes within Plantago and the retention of cytidines at ancestral positions of RNA editing indicate that these genes were probably acquired via a single, DNA-mediated transfer event. However, samplings of multiple individuals from two of the three species in the recipient Plantago clade revealed complex and perplexing phylogenetic discrepancies and patterns of sequence divergence for all three of the foreign genes.
Conclusions: This study reports the best evidence to date that multiple mitochondrial genes can be transferred via a single HGT event and that transfer occurred via a strictly DNA-level intermediate. The discovery of gene conversion between co-resident foreign and native mitochondrial copies suggests that transferred genes may be evolutionarily important in generating mitochondrial genetic diversity. Finally, the complex relationships within each lineage of transferred genes imply a surprisingly complicated history of these genes in Plantago subsequent to their acquisition via HGT and this history probably involves some combination of additional transfers (including intracellular transfer), gene duplication, differential loss and mutation-rate variation. Unravelling this history will probably require sequencing multiple mitochondrial and nuclear genomes from Plantago.