Recently, the genome of this remarkable species was sequenced. It was discovered that many of the genes that allow this organism to flourish in hostile environments appear to have come, not from the very slow processes of mutation and natural selection, but by a process called “horizontal gene transfer.” Horizontal gene transfer is what scientists do when they genetically engineer plants and animals such as was done when the gene for a toxin made by the bacteria B. thuringiensis (Bt for short) was inserted into corn to make it resistant to a variety of insect pests. It has been known for many decades that bacteria and viruses are naturally capable of exchanging genes in this way. These mechanisms for rapidly inducing permanent genetic changes in an organism became known as “horizontal gene transfer” in order to contrast it with genetic information transmitted “vertically” from parent to offspring during reproduction. In the case of G. sulphuraria, many of the genes relevant to its ability to survive and multiply under extreme and varied conditions appear to have come from both bacteria and fungi, and perhaps even some from viruses, by means of horizontal gene transfer. Thus genetic engineering has been a process known to nature millennia before we humans mastered the necessary techniques.
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