Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) can allow traits that have evolved in one bacterial species to transfer to another. This has potential to rapidly promote new adaptive trajectories such as zoonotic transfer or antimicrobial resistance. However, for this to occur requires gaps to align in barriers to recombination within a given time frame. Chief among these barriers is the physical separation of species with distinct ecologies in separate niches. Within the genus Campylobacter there are species with divergent ecologies, from rarely isolated single host specialists to multi-host generalist species that are among the most common global causes of human bacterial gastroenteritis. Here, by characterising these contrasting ecologies, we can quantify HGT among sympatric and allopatric species in natural populations. Analysing recipient and donor population ancestry among genomes from 30 Campylobacter species we show that cohabitation in the same host can lead to a 6-fold increase in HGT between species. This accounts for up to 30% of all SNPs within a given species and identifies highly recombinogenic genes with functions including host adaptation and antimicrobial resistance. As described in some animal and plant species, ecological factors are a major evolutionary force for speciation in bacteria and changes to the host landscape can promote partial convergence of distinct species through HGT.
computational biology, genetics, genomics, systems biology