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Natural transgenes could help plants adapt to local conditions

Can "borrowed" genes contribute to ecological adaptation in plants? A recently published article in the scientific journal Proceeding of the Royal Society B suggests that this may be the case.
The study on horizontal gene transfers was conducted on the Swedish island Öland. Photo: Stefan Andersson
The study on horizontal gene transfers was conducted on the Swedish island Öland. Photo: Stefan Andersson

Transgenes are genes that have moved from a donor to a recipient organism in the absence of sexual reproduction. Whereas the genetic modification of crop species involves the deliberate creation of transgenes, there are an increasing number of discoveries of natural transgenes.

The study that is now presented by scientists from Lund University has a unique focus, combining ecological field data from wild populations with genetic data.

“Our discovery was unexpected, and was first made, by chance, during background analyses within another study”, says Professor Honor C. Prentice from the Department of Biology at Lund University. "So far, no other studies have demonstrated associations between the presence of naturally acquired transgenes within plant individuals, and habitat variation".

The research was carried out on the Baltic island of Öland (Sweden), in an area with a mosaic of different local environments. The studied grass species, sheep's fescue, is common throughout Europe.

The natural transgene was present in a third  of the grass plants we studied, and the plants with the extra gene copy –  which has been "borrowed" from a distantly related grass genus –  appear to be tolerant of drier environments”, says Honor C. Prentice.

Publication

, , , , A horizontally transferred nuclear gene is associated with microhabitat variation in a natural plant population.

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