Present day mitochondria and plastids (chloroplasts) evolved from formerly free-living bacteria that were acquired through endosymbiosis more than a billion years ago. Conversion of the bacterial endosymbionts into cell organelles involved the massive translocation of genetic material from the organellar genomes to the nucleus. The development of transformation technologies for organellar genomes has made it possible to reconstruct this endosymbiotic gene transfer in laboratory experiments and study the mechanisms involved. Recently, the horizontal transfer of genetic information between organisms has also become amenable to experimental investigation. It led to the discovery of horizontal genome transfer as an asexual process generating new species and new combinations of nuclear and organellar genomes. This review describes experimental approaches towards studying endosymbiotic and horizontal gene transfer processes, discusses the new knowledge gained from these approaches about both the evolutionary significance of gene transfer and the underlying molecular mechanisms, and highlights exciting possibilities to exploit gene and genome transfer in biotechnology and synthetic biology.


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