Epistasis, core-genome disharmony, and adaptation in recombining bacteria

Aidan J. Taylor, Koji Yahara, Ben Pascoe, Seungwon Ko, Leonardos Mageiros, Evangelos Mourkas, Jessica K. Calland, Santeri Puranen, Matthew D. Hitchings, Keith A. Jolley, Carolin M. Kobras, Sion Bayliss, Nicola J. Williams, Arnoud H.M. van Vliet, Julian Parkhill, Martin C.J. Maiden, Jukka Corander, Laurence D. Hurst, Daniel Falush, Paul KeimXavier Didelot, David J. Kelly, Samuel K. Sheppard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recombination of short DNA fragments via horizontal gene transfer (HGT) can introduce beneficial alleles, create genomic disharmony through negative epistasis, and create adaptive gene combinations through positive epistasis. For non-core (accessory) genes, the negative epistatic cost is likely to be minimal because the incoming genes have not co-evolved with the recipient genome and are frequently observed as tightly linked cassettes with major effects. By contrast, interspecific recombination in the core genome is expected to be rare because disruptive allelic replacement is likely to introduce negative epistasis. Why then is homologous recombination common in the core of bacterial genomes? To understand this enigma, we take advantage of an exceptional model system, the common enteric pathogens Campylobacter jejuni and C. coli that are known for very high magnitude interspecies gene flow in the core genome. As expected, HGT does indeed disrupt co-adapted allele pairings, indirect evidence of negative epistasis. However, multiple HGT events enable recovery of the genome's co-adaption between introgressing alleles, even in core metabolism genes (e.g., formate dehydrogenase). These findings demonstrate that, even for complex traits, genetic coalitions can be decoupled, transferred, and independently reinstated in a new genetic background-facilitating transition between fitness peaks. In this example, the two-step recombinational process is associated with C. coli that are adapted to the agricultural niche.IMPORTANCEGenetic exchange among bacteria shapes the microbial world. From the acquisition of antimicrobial resistance genes to fundamental questions about the nature of bacterial species, this powerful evolutionary force has preoccupied scientists for decades. However, the mixing of genes between species rests on a paradox: 0n one hand, promoting adaptation by conferring novel functionality; on the other, potentially introducing disharmonious gene combinations (negative epistasis) that will be selected against. Taking an interdisciplinary approach to analyze natural populations of the enteric bacteria Campylobacter, an ideal example of long-range admixture, we demonstrate that genes can independently transfer across species boundaries and rejoin in functional networks in a recipient genome. The positive impact of two-gene interactions appears to be adaptive by expanding metabolic capacity and facilitating niche shifts through interspecific hybridization. This challenges conventional ideas and highlights the possibility of multiple-step evolution of multi-gene traits by interspecific introgression.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e0058124
Issue number6
Early online date29 Apr 2024
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jun 2024


  • Campylobacter
  • epistasis
  • horizontal gene transfer
  • hybridization
  • introgression
  • linkage disequilibrium
  • recombination

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Virology

Cite this