Historical and Epistemological Perspectives on What Horizontal Gene Transfer Mechanisms Contribute to Our Understanding of Evolution

  • Nathalie Gontier
Part of the Interdisciplinary Evolution Research book series (IDER, volume 3)


Since the 1990s, results coming in from molecular phylogenetics necessitate us to recognize that Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT) occurs massively across all three domains of life. Nonetheless, many of the mechanisms whereby genes can become transferred laterally have been known from the early twentieth century onward. The temporal discrepancy between the first historical observations of the processes, and the rather recent general acceptance of the documented data, poses an interesting epistemological conundrum: Why have incoming results on HGT been widely neglected by the general evolutionary community and what causes for a more favorable reception today? Five reasons are given: (1) HGT was first observed in the biomedical sciences and these sciences did not endorse an evolutionary epistemic stance because of the ontogeny/phylogeny divide adhered to by the founders of the Modern Synthesis. (2) Those who did entertain an evolutionary outlook associated research on HGT with a symbiotic epistemic framework. (3) That HGT occurs across all three domains of life was demonstrated by modern techniques developed in molecular biology, a field that itself awaits full integration into the general evolutionary synthesis. (4) Molecular phylogenetic studies of prokaryote evolution were originally associated with exobiology and abiogenesis, and both fields developed outside the framework provided by the Modern Synthesis. (5) Because HGT brings forth a pattern of reticulation, it contrasts the standard idea that evolution occurs solely by natural selection that brings forth a vertical, bifurcating pattern in the “tree” of life. Divided into two parts, this chapter first reviews current neo-Darwinian “tree of life” versus reticulate “web of life” polemics as they have been debated in high-profile academic journals, and secondly, the historical context of discovery of the various means whereby genes are transferred laterally is sketched. Along the way, the reader is introduced to how HGT contradicts some of the basic tenets of the neo-Darwinian paradigm.


Tree of life Web of life Horizontal Gene Transfer Transformation Transduction Conjugation Gene transfer agents Modern Synthesis Extended Synthesis Biomedical sciences 



This work was written with the support of the Portuguese Fund for Scientific Research (grant ID SFRH/BPD/89195/2012 and project number UID/FIL/00678/2013) and the John Templeton Foundation (grant ID 36288).


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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.AppEEL—Applied Evolutionary Epistemology LabUniversity of LisbonLisbonPortugal

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