I'm guessing most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about aphids. But there's reason to give them a little more thought than usual. Scientists studying aphids have learned that some aphids pick up and incorporate genes from fungi in order to gain protection from predators.
NPR's Joe Palca reported on the new research for the network's newscast:
JOE: Normally, animals get their DNA from their parents. But a study by scientists at the University of Arizona shows that they can also get genes from another species. In fact, animals can even take genes from creatures outside of the animal kingdom, for example, from microbes like fungi. And that's pretty surprising.
Jack Werren is a geneticist at the University of Rochester.
WERREN: The idea that animals picked up DNA from microbes, until recently that was thought to be non-existent.
JOE: As they report in the current issue of the journal Science, the Arizona researchers found that at plant pest called a pea aphid somehow managed to get genes from a fungus into it's genome. The genes make pigments that the aphids use to foil predators.
So far, it It doesn't appear humans have borrowed any genes from fungi, but scientists aren't ruling out the possibility.
The abstract of the scientific article from Science has the unwieldy title "Lateral Transfer of Genes from Fungi Underlies Carotenoid Production in Aphids."
The money quote is a bit turgid, too:
Unexpectedly, we found that the aphid genome itself encodes multiple enzymes for carotenoid biosynthesis. Phylogenetic analyses show that these aphid genes are derived from fungal genes, which have been integrated into the genome and duplicated.