Rembrandt J. F. Haft, John E. Mittler, and Beth Traxler
The ISME Journal (2009) 3, 761-769
When it comes to their relationship with their hosts it can sometimes be difficult to define what plasmids are. They often encode beneficial traits that can be useful, or even vitally necessary, for their host bacteria. A bacterium that finds itself in the gut of a patient taking antibiotics, for instance, may require plasmid-encoded resistance in order to survive. However, despite the potential usefulness of a given plasmid, plasmid carriage also comes with certain costs. In certain environments the same plasmid that used to be essential for survival can become a burden to its host due to the energy required of the host for plasmid maintenance and upkeep. In such circumstances plasmids can be viewed as parasitic; they need the host to survive but only confer costs, not benefits, to the host. Many plasmids have therefore developed clever ways with which to ensure their survival in bacterial populations, even in the absence of external selective pressures for plasmid maintenance (e.g. the presence of antibiotics).
It’s easy to imagine that in the absence of such selective pressures plasmid-free bacteria would out-compete plasmid-bearing cells. Through vertical inheritance alone this would ensure the eventual loss of plasmids from a mixed population of plasmid-bearing and free cells. One tool that most plasmids have to combat this loss is the ability to pass copies of themselves to neighboring cells via the horizontal gene transfer mechanism of conjugation. Conjugation allows plasmids to infect new hosts such that even in the absence of selection plasmids can survive in a population, even as they reduce the fitness of their hosts. Yet many plasmids have developed systems that inhibit their own horizontal transfer. The authors of this paper used a combination of mathematical models and laboratory experiments to determine when and why a plasmid might benefit in repressing, rather than promoting, their own conjugation.
What the authors predicted in their models (and confirmed in their experiments) is that by reducing transfer frequency plasmids can also reduce the cost that they’re imposing on their hosts. While plasmids that don’t repress conjugation will spread through a bacterial population more quickly on their own than plasmids with functioning repression systems, when both types of plasmids are present the latter will eventually take become dominant. This is because in limiting their horizontal transfer they give the competitive edge to their hosts, which will be more fit and grow faster than the bacteria harboring the plasmids that transfer more frequently, and consequently these transfer-limited plasmids are spread mainly through vertical transfer.
This paper not only elucidates the mystery of the persistence of transfer repression systems in plasmids, but also has broader applications to parasitic strategies in general. The authors point out that for many parasites being slightly less virulent gives some parasites a competitive advantage over those that kill their host before they are able to spread to a new one. The mathematical model that they developed could therefore be applied to a much large scope of systems, of which plasmid transfer is just one.
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University of Idaho