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Migration between different communities of bacteria is the key to the type of gene transfer that can lead to the spread of traits such as antibiotic resistance, according to researchers at Oxford University.

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While horizontal gene transfer – also known as bacterial sex – has long been acknowledged as central to microbial evolution, why it is able to exert such a strong effect has remained a mystery.

But now scientists from the Department of Zoology have demonstrated through mathematical modelling that the secret is migration, whereby movement between communities of microbes greatly increases the chances of different species of bacteria being able to swap DNA and adopt new traits.

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