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Origin of transfer establish networks of functional dependencies for plasmid transfer by conjugation

Nucleic Acids Res

Ares-Arroyo M, Coluzzi C, P C Rocha E

Plasmids can be transferred between cells by conjugation, thereby driving bacterial evolution by horizontal gene transfer. Yet, we ignore the molecular mechanisms of transfer for many plasmids because they lack all protein-coding genes required for conjugation. We solved this conundrum by identifying hundreds of plasmids and chromosomes with conjugative origins of transfer in Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. These plasmids (pOriT) hijack the relaxases of conjugative or mobilizable elements, but not both. The functional dependencies between pOriT and other plasmids explain their co-occurrence: pOriT are abundant in cells with many plasmids, whereas conjugative plasmids are the most common in the others. We systematically characterized plasmid mobility in relation to conjugation and alternative mechanisms of transfer and can now propose a putative mechanism of transfer for ∼90% of them. In most cases, plasmid mobility seems to involve conjugation. Interestingly, the mechanisms of mobility are important determinants of plasmid-encoded accessory traits, since pOriTs have the highest densities of antimicrobial resistance genes, whereas plasmids lacking putative mechanisms of transfer have the lowest. We illuminate the evolutionary relationships between plasmids and suggest that many pOriT may have arisen by gene deletions in other types of plasmids. These results suggest that most plasmids can be transferred by conjugation.

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