Category Archives: Prokaryotes

Beating a Toxin-Antitoxin System; Evading Suicide

Bacteria have evolved many different systems to evade viral predation. One strategy, abortive infection (Abi), involves altruistic suicide. Mediated by a toxin-antitoxin (TA) system, the suicide of the infected cell protects the clonal bacterial population by preventing the spread of replicated bacteriophage. A new paper in Plos Genetics has discovered a molecular mimicry-based strategy that allows phage to escape abortive infection.

Toxin-antitoxin systems are widespread prokaryotic genetic elements found on both plasmids and bacterial chromosomes. Encoding a relatively long-lived toxin and a more labile antitoxin expressed from a single bi-cistronic operon, they were originally characterised as ‘addiction modules’. In the event that a plasmid expressing a TA system fails to be inherited by a daughter cell, the absence of antitoxin allows the persisting toxin to kill the cell – post-segregational killing. These attributes as ‘selfish elements’ made it slightly surprising that so many TA systems have been found encoded on bacterial chromosomes themselves. I’ve previously written about an example of one such TA system’s activity in mediating a stress response in E. coli, and they’ve also been implicated in the formation of antibiotic resisting ‘persister’ cells.

TA systems have been classified into three different classes defined by the level of the molecular interaction between their two components. In type I systems, translation of the toxin is prevented by an antisense RNA antitoxin binding to its’ transcript, whilst in type II systems both partners are proteins. Most recently, type III TA systems have been characterised in which the toxin is neutralised by binding of an RNA antitoxin. Examples of all three varieties have been found to protect bacteria from phage infection via abortive infection; phage replication disrupts the normal cellular transcriptional program, interrupting antitoxin production and hence leading to cell death.

The first type III TA system to be characterised, ToxIN, was found on plasmids in the phytopathogen, Pectobacterium atrosepticum (Pba), and shown to inhibit the propagation of multiple different bacteriophage. ToxN is an endoribonuclease, whilst the antitoxin ToxI, is a 36nt RNA structured as a ‘pseudoknot’. The partners combine into a hetero-hexameric structure composed of 3 ToxN molecules and 3 ToxI pseudoknots.

Blower et al. have discovered that phage can evade the Abi system by producing molecular mimics of the ToxI RNA. The lytic bacteriophage ΦTE, normally fails to infect Pba carrying a toxIN-containing plasmid. At low frequency however, new phage strains emerge capable of evading the Abi system. Upon sequencing the genomes of these ‘escape strains’, the researchers discovered that they all contained sequence expansions at one specific locus. The toxI locus contains 5.5 repeats of the 36nt RNA pseudoknot-encoding sequence. The ‘escape locus’ from the phage normally encoded 1.5 repeats of a pseudo-ToxI sequence. In all the escape strains this repeat had been expanded so that it contained either 4.5 or 5.5 repeats. These expansions had probably arisen due to strand-slippage during phage replication. In one escape strain homologous recombination had occurred between the phage pseudo-ToxI and the endogenous toxI; the phage had effectively hijacked a normal antitoxin- encoding gene.

The 1.5 repeat pseudo-ToxI could not inhibit Abi (as the sequence was out of phase it did not actually encode a functional psudoknot). However, the repeat expansions had allowed the phage to make an antitoxin mimic that protected them from the TA system and hence Abi.

ΦTE is capable of generalised transduction – the ability to package and transfer chromosomal and plasmid DNA from its’ host and transfer it during infection. Blower et al. showed that one of the ΦTE escape strains is able to transduce the plasmid encoded ToxIN – a case of a bacteriophage horizontally transferring an anti-phage defence mechanism. This brings into focus the complex evolutionary dynamics operating between the three different genetic entities being studied; the bacterial cell, the plasmid encoding the TA system, and the bacteriophage evading it and potentially propagating it. From the selfish viewpoint of the TA module what’s best, preventing the spread of the phage or being disseminated by it? These speculations aren’t about to be easily answered, however, it is an interesting way to analyse further examples of similar systems.

Blower, T., Evans, T., Przybilski, R., Fineran, P., & Salmond, G. (2012). Viral Evasion of a Bacterial Suicide System by RNA–Based Molecular Mimicry Enables Infectious Altruism PLoS Genetics, 8 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1003023

Chromosomal Flip-Flop

A study describes how phenotypic switching in Staphylococcus aureus is caused by a reversible large-scale genomic inversion.

Clonal bacterial populations often display various phenotypes. This diversity is most obviously identifiable as colony variation. Many different bacterial genera display ‘small colony variants’ (SCVs), the occurrence of which is generally attributable to deficiencies in various metabolic pathways.

Cui et al have characterised an STV strain of Staphylococcus aureus which reverts to a normal colony variant (NCV) at a frequency of 1-3 in a 1000. Interestingly the NCV progeny revert back to SCV in 1-10% of cases. This frequent bi-directional reversion was stably maintained at these ratios; homogeneous colony populations could never be isolated.

The small colony variant displayed some important phenotypic differences to the NCV. As well as slow growth and less pigmentation, it was susceptible to β-lactam antibiotics whilst the NCV was not. The authors identified over a hundred genes were differentially expressed between the two variants, and that their susceptibilities to many chemicals were different.

Diagram showing reversible genomic inversion forms caused by homologous recombination at inverted repeat regions (break points. BPs)

When Cui et al. sequenced the genomes of the two variants, they discovered that nearly half of the genome (1.26 Mb of 2.87 Mb) was differenttly aligned. This ‘X-shaped’ chromosome inversion occurred between two oppositely oriented pathogenicity islands, symmetrically opposite each other on the chromosome with respect to the replication axis. Each pathogenicity island contained two copies of an identical 3,638bp long sequence. It appears that homologous recombination can occur at these sites and generate the genomic inversion. This is in agreement with experiments in which the authors altered levels of the key recombination regulatory protein RecA; finding that they could increase the rate of reversion with higher recA expression.

The chromosomal flip-flopping therefore regulates the maintenance of two different S. aureus phenotypic variants. The two forms have different advantages and disadvantages. The original SCV strain isolated from a patient suffering persistent reinfection of a surgical site. It appears that the SCV may facilitate immune evasion, whilst the NCV has higher antibiotic resistance. Maintaining a balance between the two variants within the S. aureus population therefore functions as an evolutionarily useful bet-hedging strategy.

This type of flexible genome organisation serving as a self-organising regulatory mechanism for the maintenance of a bi-stable heterogeneous cell population may well be a more wide-spread bacterial evolutionary strategy.

Cui L, Neoh HM, Iwamoto A, & Hiramatsu K (2012). Coordinated phenotype switching with large-scale chromosome flip-flop inversion observed in bacteria. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (25) PMID: 22645353

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

Trans-Extremophile Para-Sex

Cells of Haloferax volcanii showing their cup-like morphology

More than twenty years ago, an extra-ordinary mode of para-sexual genetic exchange was found to occur between cells of the halophilic archaeon Haloferax volcanii, an extremophile isolated from the Dead Sea. This process involves first, cell fusion producing heterodiploid cells. In this state, parental chromosomes can recombine, hence producing novel hybrid daughter cells after cell separation.

Haloferax mediterranei

Naor et al. have now shown that this mechanism of genetic exchange can also occur between cells of H. volcanii, and those of a related species – Haloferax mediterranei. H. mediterranei was originally isolated from a saltern near Alicante in Spain, and shares on average 86.6% sequence identity in protein-coding genes with H. volcanii. Assaying for chromosomal markers, it was found that interspecies cell fusion occurs at a frequency of 4.2 x 10-5, less than one order of magnitude less frequently than between H. volcanii cells (1.0 x 10-4). Of intraspecies fusions, 62% resulted in genetic recombination, whereas only 8% of interspecies fusions did. Although these figures sound quite small, in comparison to modes of genetic exchange between bacterial species, this inter-species genetic interchange occurred  a few orders of magnitude more efficiently.

Analysing a number of hybrid genomes, Naor et al. found that recombinant fragments ranged in size between 310 kb and 530 kb – huge genomic portions, with respect to most known bacterial horizontal genetic transfer mechanisms. Recombination occurs at areas higher sequence identity, such as transfer RNA genes. As these hybrids were isolated by selection for a specific genetic marker, it is quite conceivable, that higher proportions of the genomes can be transferred by this process.

This form of genetic exchange has important implications for archaeal speciation and evolution. High rates of recombination can act as a homogenising force – unlinking alleles faster than genes can diversify. The authors therefore suggest that geographical isolation may be the primary force in archaeal speciation. Further experiments testing the efficiency of this parasexual genetic exchange mechanism between other Haloferax species, and more information on halophilic archaeal ecology will help to clarify these issues. It will also be interesting to examine more hybrid genomes derived from other selection experiments to find out just how extensive interspecies recombination can be and whether there are any directional biases in transfer.

Naor A, Lapierre P, Mevarech M, Papke RT, & Gophna U (2012). Low species barriers in halophilic archaea and the formation of recombinant hybrids. Current biology : CB, 22 (15), 1444-8 PMID: 22748314

On Ribosomal Pausing

A new paper in Nature, describes how Shine-Dalgarno-like features in protein coding sequences, leads to bacterial ribosomes pausing during translation. Selection against ribosomal pausing leads to biases in codon usage and coding sequence evolution. Translational pausing represents a new level of regulatory control of gene expression.

Translation, the process by which the nucleotide sequence of mRNA transcripts is decoded and converted into amino acid sequence during protein synthesis, is carried out by ribosomes. Within the ribosome, transfer RNA molecules recognise specific trinucleotide codons on the mRNA, and add their cognate amino acids to nascent protein chains. In bacteria and archaea, ribosomes often recognise the translation start site with the help of a sequence 8 to 12 nucleotides upstream of it – the Shine-Dalgarno sequence (SD). It’s been known since the 1980s that different mRNAs are translated at different rates. The main reason for these differences was thought to be the concentration of rarer varieties of tRNA limiting the rate at which some transcripts could be decoded.

Li et al. have used a new technique, ribosome profiling, that maps ribosome occupancy along mRNAs. This has yielded high-resolution views of local translation rates on the entire protein coding transcriptome of E. coli and Bacillus subtilis.  Briefly put, mRNA fragments that have been protected from nuclease digestion by ribosomal binding, are ‘deep sequenced’. The concentration of these ribosome footprints equates to the ribosome occupancy throughout the transcriptome. The local translation rate is inversely related to ribosome occupancy.

Using this technique, Li et al. found many sites where ribosomal density is ten fold or more than the mean. They sought to correlate these translational pauses with specific codons. However, there was little link between occupancy of specifc codons and the abundance of their corresponding tRNAs. Therefore, the concentration of rare tRNAs is not responsible for much translational pausing under normal growth conditions.

To try to find sequence features that were linked to ribosomal pausing, the researchers then tried to correlate any trinucleotide sequences (independently of reading frame) with ribosome occupancy. They found that 6 different trinucleotide sequences, with features resembling Shine-Dalgarno sequences, did correlate with the position of paused ribosomes. This correlation was not found in the yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae; in agreement with eukaryotic ribosomes not using SD- anti-SD interactions.

Li et al. went on to show definitively that internal SD-like sequences are linked to translational pausing, by introducing a mutation into one such site and showing that ribosome occupancy was reduced. They also showed that peaks of ribosome occupancy, were caused by translational pausing, rather than attempted internal translational initiation.

As translational pausing limits the amount of free ribosomes, widespread internal SD-like sequences would limit the rate of protein synthesis, and hence the potential bacterial growth rate. In line with this, SD-like sequences in protein coding genes are disfavoured. Selection pressure against SD-like sequences is therefore a major factor in determining codon usage, and more especially the usage of codon pairs (SD sequences are 6/7 nt long).

Interestingly, the authors found that patterns of ribosome occupancy were conserved between orthologous genes in E. coli and B. subtilis. This reflects two different factors; firstly, coding is obviously constrained by protein’s functionality, but secondly it’s suggestive of translational pausing being exploited for functional purposes. Li et al. suggest a number of different ways in which ribosomal pausing can regulate gene expression. It’s known that internal SD-like sequences can promote regulated shifting of reading frame. Ribosome pausing may also modulate folding of nascent protein chains. Lastly, as transcription and translation are closely coupled in bacteria, ribosome occupancy may inhibit the formation of stem-loop structures that prevent transcriptional termination. It will be exciting to work out the extents to which these potential regulatory systems are active. Eukaryotic ribosomes do not use recognition of SD sequences, instead using the 5’ mRNA cap and the less well defined Kozak sequence for translational initiation. Does ribosome pausing occur in eukaryotes? and does it have functional significance?

Li, G., Oh, E., & Weissman, J. (2012). The anti-Shine–Dalgarno sequence drives translational pausing and codon choice in bacteria Nature, 484 (7395), 538-541 DOI: 10.1038/nature10965

On ICE: Integrative and Conjugative Elements.

Integrative and conjugative elements are bacterial mobile genetic elements that primarily reside in the host cell’s chromosome, yet have the ability to be transferred between cells by conjugation. ICEs can be considered as mosaic elements, combining features from other mobile elements: the integrative ability of bacteriophage or transposons, and the transfer mechanisms of conjugative plasmids. This mosaicism is reflected in modular structures: genes encoding the core functions of integration/excision, conjugation and regulation are generally found clustered together. As well as these core functions, ICEs often carry accessory genes that can bestow adaptive phenotypes on their hosts. Gene cassettes encoding antibiotic resistance, nitrogen fixation, virulence factors and various other functions have all been documented in ICEs. They are therefore important vectors for the horizontal dissemination of genetic information, facilitating rapid bacterial evolution.

Chromosomal integration and excision of ICEs is mediated by integrase (Int) enzymes. Most commonly integrases are tyrosine recombinases related to the well studied phage λ Int. They mediate site-specific recombination events between identical or near-identical sequences in the host and ICE genomes (termed attB and attP respectively). These integration events normally occur into tRNA genes. No definitive reason for this association of tyrosine recombinase mediated integration with tRNA genes is known, however tRNA genes evolve more slowly than protein coding genes, potentially broadening the possible host range. Other ICEs encode transposase family tyrosine recombinase Ints that have broader target sequence preferences. Members of the DDE transposase and serine recombinase families also serve as integrases in some ICEs. Before ICE transfer occurs, the element is excised and circularised. Excision of ICEs also requires Int activity, however the process is biased towards excision by ‘recombination directionality factors’ (RDFs). If chromosomal replication or cell devision occurs whilst the ICE is in the excised chromosomal state, the element could be lost from the cell. To prevent this ICEs (like plasmids) often encode addiction modules (toxin-antitoxin systems) that kill cells not inheriting the ICE.

Conjugative transfer occurs via the formation of a multiprotein apparatus that connects the donor and recipient cells: a type IV secretion system (T4SS). This consists of a membrane spanning secretion channel and often an extracellular pilus. The extrachromosomal ICE DNA is first nicked at the origin of transfer (oriT) by a relaxase (MOB) enzyme. Rolling circle replication is then initiated. MOB remains bound to the displaced single-stranded DNA and this nucleoprotein complex is targeted to the T4SS by a coupling protein (T4CP). Rather than using a T4SS, some ICEs are transferred between cells using FtsK-like DNA translocase pumps (in this case dsDNA is transferred). After transfer, the ssDNA ICE is replicated into dsDNA and integrated into the recipient cell’s chromosome. The ICE in the donor cell is also converted into dsDNA and re-integrated into the genome.

ICE transmission is under the control of networks responsive to environmental stimuli. For instance, transfer of the SXT-R391 family of ICEs is controlled by SelR, a homologue of the λ repressor CI. Regulation occurs by a similar mechanism as that controlling the λ switch from lysogeny to lysis. As with CI, SetR repression can be relieved by the action of RecA, the main effector of the ‘SOS’ response to DNA damage. Other ICEs transmission have been shown to be under the control of quorum sensing networks.

A recent bioinformatic study of ICE prevalence and diversity identified ICEs by finding clustered conjugative apparatus modules (Guglielmini et al). If these were found on chromosomal locations they were defined as belonging to ICEs, whilst those on extra-chromosomal elements were considered conjugative plasmids. No reference was made to the presence of integrases. Within this definition ICEs were more common than conjugative plasmids: 18% of sequenced prokaryotic genomes contained at least one ICE as opposed to 12% possessing conjugative plasmids. ICEs are generally defined as not being capable of autonomous extra-chromosomal replication and maintenance. This is opposed to conjugative plasmids that include replication origins and systems. However, this definition is not watertight, as there appear to be various exceptions. Likewise, conjugative plasmids can be integrated chromosomally, either by homologous recombination at repeat sequences, or by site-specific recombination events. These elements therefore exist on a spectrum. Phylogenetic analysis of VirB4 genes (an ATPase component of T4SS) shows that ICEs and conjugative plasmids do not segregate as monophyletic clades. Instead they are intermingled throughout the tree, suggesting that conjugative plasmids often become ICEs and vice versa. Guglielmini et al. therefore consider them as two sides of the same coin. If selection pressures are strong enough though, ICEs can be stabilised as chromosomal structures for long periods of time.

A striking example of the potency and evolutionary importance of ICEs is found in the genomes of the obligate intracellular bacterial family Rickettsiales. One third of the genome of Orientia tsutsugamushi (the mite borne causative agent of scrub typhus) is made up of degenerate copies of an ICE named RAGE (Rickettsiales amplified genetic element). Multiple invasions of RAGE have also configured the genome of a Rickettsial endosymbiont of a deer tick (REIS). In this case RAGEs have acted as hotspots for recombination and the insertion of other mobile elements, leading to the insertion of clusters of novel horizontally transferred genes (a process termed piggybacking). These two Rickettsiales species have especially large genomes for obligate intracellular bacteria, but it seems likely that RAGE has been important in the evolution of this entire clade.

See also: Expanding the Conjugative Realm

Wozniak, R., & Waldor, M. (2010). Integrative and conjugative elements: mosaic mobile genetic elements enabling dynamic lateral gene flow Nature Reviews Microbiology, 8 (8), 552-563 DOI: 10.1038/nrmicro2382

Guglielmini, J., Quintais, L., Garcillán-Barcia, M., de la Cruz, F., & Rocha, E. (2011). The Repertoire of ICE in Prokaryotes Underscores the Unity, Diversity, and Ubiquity of Conjugation PLoS Genetics, 7 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002222

Nakayama, K., Yamashita, A., Kurokawa, K., Morimoto, T., Ogawa, M., Fukuhara, M., Urakami, H., Ohnishi, M., Uchiyama, I., Ogura, Y., Ooka, T., Oshima, K., Tamura, A., Hattori, M., & Hayashi, T. (2008). The Whole-genome Sequencing of the Obligate Intracellular Bacterium Orientia tsutsugamushi Revealed Massive Gene Amplification During Reductive Genome Evolution DNA Research, 15 (4), 185-199 DOI: 10.1093/dnares/dsn011

Gillespie, J., Joardar, V., Williams, K., Driscoll, T., Hostetler, J., Nordberg, E., Shukla, M., Walenz, B., Hill, C., Nene, V., Azad, A., Sobral, B., & Caler, E. (2011). A Rickettsia Genome Overrun by Mobile Genetic Elements Provides Insight into the Acquisition of Genes Characteristic of an Obligate Intracellular Lifestyle Journal of Bacteriology, 194 (2), 376-394 DOI: 10.1128/JB.06244-11

Transposons and plasmids combine for bacterial chromosomal transfer.

A mechanism that facilitates the horizontal transfer of large segments of chromosomal DNA has been discovered in natural isolates of the pathogenic bacterium Yersinia pseudotuberculosis.

Although horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is recognised as a major force in bacterial evolution, and many mobile genetic elements underlying genomic plasticity have been characterised, the mechanisms by which genetic exchange of chromosomal DNA occurs in natural populations have remained largely hypothetical.

In experiments analysing the mobility of a pathogenicity island (HPI) in Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, Lesic and Carniel (2005) discovered that HPI could be transferred between natural isolates in a process that occurred optimally at 4˚C. However, this process didn’t require integration/excision machinery encoded in the HPI, and also transferred adjacent sequences (>46kb). To test whether this process was specific to the HPI region, Lesic et al inserted various antibiotic resistance markers equidistantly within the Y. pseudotuberculosis chromosome. When this strain was co-incubated with a naïve recipient strain, transfer of these markers was observed in ‘transconjugants’. None of the transconjugants acquired more than one of the antibiotic resistance loci, showing that the transferred chromosomal fragments were less that 1.5Mb in size. The transfer mechanism was also capable of mediating the transmission of a non-mobilisable plasmid (pUC4K). Together these results showed the existence of a mechanism for generalised DNA transfer that functioned at low temperature (termed GDT4).

Lesic et al. found that the GDT4 performing strain contained a very high molecular weight plasmid (≥100Mb). When this plasmid was removed (‘cured’) from the strain, GDT4 was abolished. They therefore termed this plasmid pGDT4. pGDT4 was transferred during transconjugation experiments and was able to confer the ability to transfer chromosomal DNA.

Electron micrograph of aggregating Y. pseudotuberculosis. White arrows point to bridge-like structures.

Sequencing of pGDT4 showed that it contained genes involved in conjugation (the process by which a pilus acts as a conduit for transfer of DNA between cells). When part of this conjugative machinery was deleted GDT4 ability was lost. Interestingly though, pili could not be observed by electron microscopy, and strong shaking of cultures (predicted to disrupt pilus-mediated interactions) had no effect. Instead, the bacteria were seen to tightly aggregate, and seemed to be connected by ‘bridges’.

Organisation of pUC4K plasmids from transconjugants, showing novel IS insertions and IS mediated novel organisations.

pGDT4 also contains a number of Insertion Sequences (IS, short bacterial transposable elements). None of these IS were present on the bacterial chromosome or pUC4K (the non-mobilisable plasmid). After GDT4 transfer of pUC4K, it was observed the size of pUC4K was often altered. Of 10 transconjugant pUC4Ks measured, 3 were the original size, but (pGDT4 derived) IS insertions had lengthened the others. In 5 cases a single copy of ISYps1 had been acquired by pUC4K, whilst in 1 case a large section of pGDT4 had been inserted between two ISYps3 elements.

ISYps1 and ISYps3 (members of the IS6 and Tn3 families respectively) transpose by a mechanism termed replicative transposition. An intermediate stage during this mode of transposition is the formation of a ‘co-integrate’ in which the donor and target replicons (in this case pGDT4 and pUC4K) are fused by 2 copies of the transposon. The cointegrate is then resolved by homologous recombination, leaving a new copy of the transposon on the target and the original still in place on the donor.

Model describing ISYps1 transposition mediated mobilisation of pUC4K via cointegrate formation.

These observations suggested that GDT4 occurs by cointegrates of pGDT4 and other replicons (bacterial chromosome or other plasmids) being formed during IS transposition and then being transferred to recipient cells by conjugation. In further experiments, Lesic et al. confirmed that replicative transposition of ISYps1 was capable of  driving cointegrate formation between different plasmids in E.coli, that could also be transferred by conjugation.

This mode of chromosomal transfer is very similar to the ‘Hfr‘ system characterised in E. coli. In Hfr strains, transfer of chromosomal DNA occurs by conjugation because the conjugative plasmid ‘F’ becomes integrated into the chromosome. Integration of F occurs by homologous recombination at IS sequences shared between the plasmid and the bacterial chromosome. The difference in GDT4 is that no sequence identity between the two replicons is necessary. ISYps1 transposition does not seem to target any particular sequence. This makes this mode of chromosomal conjugative transfer less constrained than Hfr and potentially more powerful. It is notable that plasmids often carry a large number of IS. For instance, a plasmid in Shigella carries 93 copies of IS of 21 different types. The ability to confer chromosomal DNA transfer may be a selective advantage underlying plasmid/IS symbioses.

GDT4 was optimal at low temperature and low iron concentration. However, pGDT4 did not encode any known thermoregulators. This suggests that temperature sensitive pGDT4 conjugation is under the control host genes. GDT4 could therefore be a natural response to challenging growth conditions.

Lesic, B., Zouine, M., Ducos-Galand, M., Huon, C., Rosso, M., Prévost, M., Mazel, D., & Carniel, E. (2012). A Natural System of Chromosome Transfer in Yersinia pseudotuberculosis PLoS Genetics, 8 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002529