Horizontal gene transfer is the primary mechanism for the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, and plays an important role in the evolution of bacteria that can degrade novel compounds such as human-created pesticides and in the evolution, maintenance, and transmission of virulence. It often involves temperate bacteriophages and plasmids. Genes responsible for antibiotic resistance in one species of bacteria can be transferred to another species of bacteria through various mechanisms such as F-pilus, subsequently arming the antibiotic resistant genes' recipient against antibiotics, which is becoming medically challenging to deal with. It is also postulated that HGT promotes the maintenance of a universal life biochemistry and, subsequently, the universality of the genetic code.
Most thinking in genetics has focused upon vertical transfer, but the importance of horizontal gene transfer among single-cell organisms is beginning to be acknowledged.
Griffith's experiment, reported in 1928 by Frederick Griffith, was the first experiment suggesting that bacteria are capable of transferring genetic information through a process known as transformation. Griffith's findings were followed by research in the late 1930s and early 40s that isolated DNA as the material that communicated this genetic information.
Horizontal genetic transfer was then described in Seattle in 1951, in a paper demonstrating that the transfer of a viral gene into Corynebacterium diphtheriae created a virulent strain from a non-virulent strain, also simultaneously solving the riddle of diphtheria (that patients could be infected with the bacteria but not have any symptoms, and then suddenly convert later or never), and giving the first example for the relevance of the lysogenic cycle. Inter-bacterial gene transfer was first described in Japan in a 1959 publication that demonstrated the transfer of antibiotic resistance between different species of bacteria. In the mid-1980s, Syvanen predicted that lateral gene transfer existed, had biological significance, and was involved in shaping evolutionary history from the beginning of life on Earth.