Pfeifer E, Bonnin RA, Rocha EPC
Antibiotic resistance is rapidly spreading via the horizontal transfer of resistance genes in mobile genetic elements. While plasmids are key drivers of this process, few integrative phages encode antibiotic resistance genes. Here, we find that phage-plasmids, elements that are both phages and plasmids, often carry antibiotic resistance genes. We found 60 phage-plasmids with 184 antibiotic resistance genes, providing resistance for broad-spectrum-cephalosporins, carbapenems, aminoglycosides, fluoroquinolones, and colistin. These genes are in a few hot spots, seem to have been cotranslocated with transposable elements, and are often in class I integrons, which had not been previously found in phages. We tried to induce six phage-plasmids with resistance genes (including four with resistance integrons) and succeeded in five cases. Other phage-plasmids and integrative prophages were coinduced in these experiments. As a proof of concept, we focused on a P1-like element encoding an extended spectrum β-lactamase, blaCTX-M-55. After induction, we confirmed that it is capable of infecting and converting four other E. coli strains. Its reinduction led to the further conversion of a sensitive strain, confirming that it is a fully functional phage. This study shows that phage-plasmids carry a large diversity of clinically relevant antibiotic resistance genes that they can transfer across bacteria. As plasmids, these elements seem plastic and capable of acquiring genes from other plasmids. As phages, they may provide novel paths of transfer for resistance genes because they can infect bacteria that are distant in time and space from the original host. As a matter of alarm, they may also mediate transfer to other types of phages. IMPORTANCE The dissemination of antimicrobial resistance is a major threat to global health. Here, we show that a group of temperate bacterial viruses (phages), termed phage-plasmids, commonly encode different and multiple types of resistance genes of high clinical importance, often in integrons. This is unexpected, as phages typically do not carry resistance genes and, hence, do not confer upon their hosts resistance via infection and genome integration. Our experiments with phage-plasmids isolated from clinical settings confirmed that they infect sensitive strains and render them antibiotic resistant. The spread of antibiotic resistance genes by phage-plasmids is worrisome because it dispenses cell-to-cell contact, which is necessary for canonical plasmid transfer (conjugation). Furthermore, their integrons become genetic platforms for the acquisition of novel resistance genes.