Mycoplasmas are commonly described as the simplest self-replicating organisms, whose evolution was mainly characterized by genome downsizing with a proposed evolutionary scenario similar to that of obligate intracellular bacteria such as insect endosymbionts. Thus far, analysis of mycoplasma genomes indicates a low level of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) implying that DNA acquisition is strongly limited in these minimal bacteria. In this study, the genome of the ruminant pathogen Mycoplasma agalactiae was sequenced. Comparative genomic data and phylogenetic tree reconstruction revealed that ∼18% of its small genome (877,438 bp) has undergone HGT with the phylogenetically distinct mycoides cluster, which is composed of significant ruminant pathogens. HGT involves genes often found as clusters, several of which encode lipoproteins that usually play an important role in mycoplasma–host interaction. A decayed form of a conjugative element also described in a member of the mycoides cluster was found in the M. agalactiae genome, suggesting that HGT may have occurred by mobilizing a related genetic element. The possibility of HGT events among other mycoplasmas was evaluated with the available sequenced genomes. Our data indicate marginal levels of HGT among Mycoplasma species except for those described above and, to a lesser extent, for those observed in between the two bird pathogens, M. gallisepticum and M. synoviae. This first description of large-scale HGT among mycoplasmas sharing the same ecological niche challenges the generally accepted evolutionary scenario in which gene loss is the main driving force of mycoplasma evolution. The latter clearly differs from that of other bacteria with small genomes, particularly obligate intracellular bacteria that are isolated within host cells. Consequently, mycoplasmas are not only able to subvert complex hosts but presumably have retained sexual competence, a trait that may prevent them from genome stasis and contribute to adaptation to new hosts.
Mycoplasmas are cell wall–lacking prokaryotes that evolved from ancestors common to Gram-positive bacteria by way of massive losses of genetic material. With their minimal genome, mycoplasmas are considered to be the simplest free-living organisms, yet several species are successful pathogens of man and animal. In this study, we challenged the commonly accepted view in which mycoplasma evolution is driven only by genome down-sizing. Indeed, we showed that a significant amount of genes underwent horizontal transfer among different mycoplasma species that share the same ruminant hosts. In these species, the occurrence of a genetic element that can promote DNA transfer via cell-to-cell contact suggests that some mycoplasmas may have retained or acquired sexual competence. Transferred genes were found to encode proteins that are likely to be associated with mycoplasma–host interactions. Sharing genetic resources via horizontal gene transfer may provide mycoplasmas with a means for adapting to new niches or to new hosts and for avoiding irreversible genome erosion.