Bacteria are the only organisms known to actively take up DNA and recombine it into their genomes. While such natural transformation systems may provide many of the same benefits that sexual reproduction provides eukaryotes, there are important differences that critically alter the consequences, especially when recombination's main benefit is reducing the mutation load. Here, analytical and numerical methods are used to study the selection of transformation genes in populations undergoing deleterious mutation. Selection for transformability depends on the shape of the fitness against mutation. If the fitness function is linear, then transformation would be selectively neutral were it not for the possibility that transforming cells may take up DNA that converts them into nontransformable cells. If the selection includes strong positive (synergistic) epistasis, then transformation can be advantageous in spite of this risk. The effect of low quality DNA (from selectively killed cells) on selection is then studied analytically and found to impose an additional cost. The limited data available for real bacterial populations suggest that the conditions necessary for the evolution of transformation are unlikely to be met, and thus that DNA uptake may have some function other than recombination of deleterious mutations.
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|Published - May 1997