The evolution of negative interactions seems like a logical consequence of natural selection. Organisms compete for resources or view one another as a resource, thus finding ways to more efficiently find and consume prey. However, to me, the natural selection of symbiotic or mutualistic interactions has never seemed as straight forward (expect maybe the case where one species provides protection for the other, such as in ant-plant mutualisms). A specific example is the rise of nitrogen-fixing plants, who supply nutrients to bacteria called rhizobia capable of converting atmospheric nitrogen into forms, such as ammonia, usable to the plant host. Not only has this symbiosis evolved, but has seemed to evolve in very evolutionarily distinct lineages. The question is, what are the mechanisms allowing for this?
In a recent paper, Marchetti and colleagues answer part of the question. They experimentally manipulate a pathogenic bacteria and observe it turning into a symbiont. They transferred a plasmid from the symbiotic nitrogen fixing Cupriavidus taiwanensis into Ralstonia solanacearum and infected Mimosa roots with it. Plasmid transfer among distinct bacteria species is common and referred to horizontal genetic transfer (as opposed to vertical, which is the transfer to daughter cells). The presence of the plasmid caused R. solanacearum to quickly evolve into a root-nodulating symbiont. Two regulatory genes lost function, and this caused R. solanacearum to form nodules and to impregnate Mimosa root cells.
This extremely novel experiment reveals how horizontal gene transfer can supply the impetus for rapid evolution from being a pathogen to a symbiont. More importantly it reveals that sometimes just a few steps are required for this transition and how distantly-related bacterial species can acquire symbiotic behaviors.
Marchetti, M., Capela, D., Glew, M., Cruveiller, S., Chane-Woon-Ming, B., Gris, C., Timmers, T., Poinsot, V., Gilbert, L., Heeb, P., Médigue, C., Batut, J., & Masson-Boivin, C. (2010). Experimental Evolution of a Plant Pathogen into a Legume Symbiont PLoS Biology, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000280