What if a gene from an insect insinuated itself straight into your DNA? What if more than a hundred genes from bacteria did? Would that make you some kind of horrible Franken-human?
No. It would make you exactly what you are today.
It turns out that genes are quite capable of hopping from one organism into a completely different species. Not only do these genes jump, but when they land in a new host they can actively change it. This can give the host species new abilities, sending it down a new evolutionary path. Even humans play host to alien genes, and it seems they have shaped our evolution.
In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin laid out how this process of evolution works. He drew a sketch of a branching tree, where each new twig was a new species born of accumulated mutations. This is what biologists call the “tree of life”.
But there’s another way for genes to find a new host.
Sometimes a gene can jump directly from one organism to another organism, which might belong to a completely different species. This process is called horizontal gene transfer.
That means Darwin’s image of the tree of life isn’t quite right. If genes can hop about between organisms that are on different branches of the tree, we have to draw lines linking those separate branches.
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