Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is widespread in the evolution of prokaryotes, especially those associated with the human body. Here, we implemented large-scale gene-species phylogenetic tree reconstructions and reconciliations to identify putative HGT-derived genes in the reference genomes of microbiota isolated from six major human body sites by the NIH Human Microbiome Project. Comparisons with a control group representing microbial genomes from diverse natural environments indicated that HGT activity increased significantly in the genomes of human microbiota, which is confirmatory of previous findings. Roughly, more than half of total genes in the genomes of human-associated microbiota were transferred (donated or received) by HGT. Up to 60% of the detected HGTs occurred either prior to the colonization of the human body or involved bacteria residing in different body sites. The latter could suggest ‘genetic crosstalk’ and movement of bacterial genes within the human body via hitherto poorly understood mechanisms. We also observed that HGT activity increased significantly among closely-related microorganisms and especially when they were united by physical proximity, suggesting that the ‘phylogenetic effect’ can significantly boost HGT activity. Finally, we identified several core and widespread genes least influenced by HGT that could become useful markers for building robust ‘trees of life’ and address several outstanding technical challenges to improve the phylogeny-based genome-wide HGT detection method for future applications.
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