Why sex is maintained in nature is a fundamental question in biology. Natural genetic transformation (NGT) is a sexual process by which bacteria actively take up exogenous DNA and use it to replace homologous chromosomal sequences. As it has been demonstrated, the role of NGT in repairing deleterious mutations under constant selection is insufficient for its survival, and the lack of other viable explanations have left no alternative except that DNA uptake provides nucleotides for food. Here we develop a novel simulation approach for the long-term dynamics of genome organization (involving the loss and acquisition of genes) in a bacterial species consisting of a large number of spatially distinct populations subject to independently fluctuating ecological conditions. Our results show that in the presence of weak interpopulation migration NGT is able to subsist as a mechanism to reload locally lost, intermittently selected genes from the collective gene pool of the species through DNA uptake from migrants. Reloading genes and combining them with those in locally adapted genomes allow individual cells to readapt faster to environmental changes. The machinery of transformation survives under a wide range of model parameters readily encompassing real-world biological conditions. These findings imply that the primary role of NGT is not to serve the cell with food, but to provide homologous sequences for restoring genes that have disappeared from or become degraded in the local population.
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