Assessing the probability of detection of horizontal gene transfer events in bacterial populations
Experimental approaches to identify horizontal gene transfer (HGT) events of non-mobile DNA in bacteria have typically relied on detection of the initial transformants or their immediate offspring. However, rare HGT events occurring in large and structured populations are unlikely to be detected in a short time frame. Population genetic modeling of the growth dynamics of bacterial genotypes is therefore necessary to account for natural selection and genetic drift during the time lag and to predict realistic time frames for detection with a given sampling design. Here we draw on statistical approaches to population genetic theory to construct a cohesive probabilistic framework for investigation of HGT of exogenous DNA into bacteria. In particular, the stochastic timing of rare HGT events is accounted for. Integrating over all possible event timings, we provide an equation for the probability of detection, given that HGT actually occurred. Furthermore, we identify the key variables determining the probability of detecting HGT events in four different case scenarios that are representative of bacterial populations in various environments. Our theoretical analysis provides insight into the temporal aspects of dissemination of genetic material, such as antibiotic resistance genes or transgenes present in genetically modified organisms. Due to the long time scales involved and the exponential growth of bacteria with differing fitness, quantitative analyses incorporating bacterial generation time, and levels of selection, such as the one presented here, will be a necessary component of any future experimental design and analysis of HGT as it occurs in natural settings.
CitationFrontiers Microbiology (2012) 3:27
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