Expanding the Conjugative Realm

A recent paper demonstrates that a broader range of plasmids can be transferred by conjugation than previously thought.

Integrative and conjugative elements (ICEs, aka conjugative transposons) are a variety of bacterial mobile element generally found integrated into the host genome, but capable of excision and transfer to other cells via conjugation. I’ve previously written a short review of some of their key features, which may serve as a helpful introduction to this post. As well as transferring themselves between cells, ICEs and conjugative plasmids can mobilise other DNA elements, such as integrative mobilizable elements (IMEs) and mobilizable plasmids, that aren’t independently capable of self-transfer.

The conjugative transfer of any of these elements generally rests upon the generation of a single-stranded DNA molecule from the circular dsDNA mobile genetic element. The ssDNA is formed by a mobilising relaxase (Mob) nicking the circular DNA at an origin of transfer (oriT) sequence, followed by the unwinding of the strands by a host-derived helicase. Mob covalently binds the nicked end forming the ‘relaxosome’. A coupling protein is responsible for targeting the relaxosome to the conjugative apparatus (a type 4 secretion system, T4SS).

Plasmids that are incapable of self-transfer, but can be mobilised in trans by conjugative elements, generally encode their own mobilising relaxase and a cognate oriT site. These functions are separate from their replication system, which does however consist of similar components; a replication relaxase (Rep) which nicks and binds to an origin of replication (ori).

Lee et al. have discovered that three plasmids, which had been classified as non-mobilisable due to their lack of Mob/oriT functions, can in fact be transferred between Bacillus subtilis cells by the conjugation system of an ICE, ICEBs1. The three plasmids’ (pC194, pBS42, and pHP13) transfer required the conjugation machinery and coupling enzyme (ConQ) of ICEBs1, but was not dependent on it’s relaxase (NicK). Transfer could occur concomitantly with that of ICEBs1 or in it’s absence; showing that transfer did not act in cis due to integration of the plasmid into ICEBs1.

The authors found that, in the case of pBS42, it’s replicative relaxase was necessary for mobilisation. They therefore think it likely that in all three cases the Rep/ori system is also capable of mediating mobilisation functions. This blurring of the distinctions between Rep/ori and Mob/oriT systems has important ramifications. It opens up the possibility that many rolling-circle replicating plasmids that had been classed as non-mobilisable can in fact be transferred between cells via conjugation.

From an evolutionary perspective, these findings are important for understanding the persistence of plasmids in bacterial populations. Non-mobilisable plasmids would only be maintained in the population because benefits conferred on their hosts. If however many more ‘non-mobilisable’ plasmids can be disseminated by horizontal transfer, their persistence can be better explained. This study therefore expands the importance of conjugation in understanding bacterial evolution. Future studies will need to analyse the extent of interactions between coupling proteins and replication relaxases to better gauge the trans-mobilisation of genetic elements, and re-classify the mobility status of many plasmids.

Lee CA, Thomas J, & Grossman AD (2012). The Bacillus subtilis conjugative transposon ICEBs1 mobilizes plasmids lacking dedicated mobilization functions. Journal of bacteriology, 194 (12), 3165-72 PMID: 22505685


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