Though horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is widespread, genes and taxa experience biased rates of transferability. Curiously, independent transmission of homologous DNA to archaea, bacteria, eukaryotes, and viruses is extremely rare and often defies ecological and functional explanations. Here, we demonstrate that a bacterial lysozyme family integrated independently in all domains of life across diverse environments, generating the only glycosyl hydrolase 25 muramidases in plants and archaea. During coculture of a hydrothermal vent archaeon with a bacterial competitor, muramidase transcription is upregulated. Moreover, recombinant lysozyme exhibits broad-spectrum antibacterial action in a dose-dependent manner. Similar to bacterial transfer of antibiotic resistance genes, transfer of a potent antibacterial gene across the universal tree seemingly bestows a niche-transcending adaptation that trumps the barriers against parallel HGT to all domains. The discoveries also comprise the first characterization of an antibacterial gene in archaea and support the pursuit of antibiotics in this underexplored group.
Living things inherit most of their genetic material from their parents, so genes tend to be passed on from one generation to the next—from ancestors to descendants. Sometimes, however, DNA is transferred from one organism to another by other means. These events, collectively called horizontal gene transfer, are fairly common in nature; genes have been passed between different species as well as between different groups of organisms. For example, genes that confer resistance to antibacterial drugs have transferred from one species of bacteria to another, and other genes have also ‘jumped’ from bacteria to plants or animals.
Now Metcalf et al. have studied a gene that first arose in bacteria and that encodes an enzyme called a lysozyme. This enzyme breaks down the outer casing of a bacterial cell: a step that is required for a bacterium to reproduce and divide in two. When Metcalf et al. searched for relatives of the lysozyme gene, they found copies in many other species of bacteria and revealed that this gene has been repeatedly transferred between different bacteria. Members of the lysozyme gene family have also ‘jumped out’ of bacteria and into other organisms at least four times. Metcalf et al. found related lysozyme genes in a plant, an insect, many species of fungi, and a single-celled microbe (called an archaeon) that lives at hot, deep-sea vents.
A gene family being spread this widely across the tree of life has not been seen before. Nevertheless, as DNA is a common biological language to all living things, it is likely that all the different species that have received a lysozyme gene might use it for similar purposes.
Metcalf et al. reveal that the lysozyme could be being used as an antibacterial molecule. The archaeon lysozyme can kill a broad range of bacteria; and when the gene was transferred into Escherichia coli bacteria, only the bacteria that mutated the lysozyme gene to render it useless were able to survive. Metcalf et al. also revealed that the archaeon microbe produces more of the enzyme if bacteria are present, which allows it to outcompete these bacteria.
These findings suggest that there may be a number of horizontally transferred genes that have antibacterial activity against a wide range of bacteria. Searching for these genes—particularly in the largely underexplored group of archaea—might reveal new sources for antibiotic drugs to treat bacterial infections.