To survive in the frigid ocean waters around the Arctic and Antarctica, marine life evolved many defenses against the lethal cold. One common adaptation is the ability to make antifreezing proteins (AFPs) that prevent ice crystals from growing in blood, tissues and cells. It’s a solution that has evolved repeatedly and independently, not just in fish but in plants, fungi and bacteria.
It isn’t surprising, then, that herrings and smelts, two groups of fish that commonly roam the northernmost reaches of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, both make AFPs. But it is very surprising, even weird, that both fish do so with the same AFP gene — particularly since their ancestors diverged more than 250 million years ago and the gene is absent from all the other fish species related to them.
A March paper in Trends in Genetics holds the unorthodox explanation: The gene became part of the smelt genome through a direct horizontal transfer from a herring. It wasn’t through hybridization, because herring and smelt can’t crossbreed, as many failed attempts have shown. The herring gene made its way into the smelt genome outside the normal sexual channels.
Laurie Graham, a molecular biologist at Queen’s University in Ontario and lead author on the paper, knows she’s making a bold claim in arguing for the direct transfer of a gene from one fish to another. That kind of horizontal DNA movement once wasn’t imagined to happen in any animals, let alone vertebrates. Still, the more she and her colleagues study the smelt, the clearer the evidence becomes. [Continue reading…]