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Genetic Exchange between Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus licheniformis: Variable Hybrid Stability and the Nature of Bacterial Species

Kathleen E. Duncan, Conrad A. Istock, Julia Bell Graham and Nancy Ferguson
Evolution
Vol. 43, No. 8 (Dec., 1989), pp. 1585-1609
DOI: 10.2307/2409377
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2409377
Page Count: 25
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Genetic Exchange between Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus licheniformis: Variable Hybrid Stability and the Nature of Bacterial Species
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Abstract

Experiments employing both broth and soil cultures demonstrated the capacity for bidirectional genetic exchange between the eubacterial species Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus licheniformis. The process was studied using standard laboratory strains and wild isolates of these species. The genetic exchange in soil occurs spontaneously. The interspecific recombination involved markers for antibiotic resistance and for the use of specific carbon sources (API characters). Hybrids frequently had unstable phenotypes, i.e., lacked a consistent expression of foreign genes over repeated transfer and growth. This instability often involved a "correction" back toward the phenotype of one or the other of the parental species for many differentiating characters; the final phenotype was always that of the more probable or actually known recipient species. This "correction" process is reminiscent of phenomena associated with the instability of artificial fusion protoplasts or noncomplementing diploids of B. subtilis, as well as the merodiploids formed by intergeneric crosses with enteric bacteria. The hybrids observed here must also be diploid, in some manner, because they sequentially express traits of both parental species at rates well above the frequency of mutation. Among the unstable changes in hybrids of the wild strains there was a 3:1 bias in favor of "correction." The dynamics of the hybridization process in soil are described. It appears that the hybrids are formed most rapidly following outgrowth from spores and during the early growth of parental vegetative cell populations. Later on, the hybrids are much less frequent in the soil cultures, suggesting that they are competitively inferior to the parental species. It is argued that the capacity for recombination found between B. subtilis and B. licheniformis could locally erase their distinctness, even though they possess only about 15% DNA sequence homology. Yet they remain distinct in the wild. The methods and results of these experiments prepare the way for detailed studies of the nature of species and species boundaries throughout the genus Bacillus.

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