Gene Transfer within Microbial Communities – intrachain conjugation

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      Efficient Gene Transfer in Bacterial Cell Chains
      Ana Babic*, Melanie B. Berkmen*, Catherine A. Lee, and Alan D. Grossman
      Author Affiliations

      Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

      Present address: Ana Babic, University of Tubingen, Institute of Tropical Medicine, Tubingen, Germany; Melanie B. Berkmen, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Suffolk University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

      Address correspondence to Alan D. Grossman, adg(at)mit.edu
      Editor Richard Losick, Harvard University

      ABSTRACT

      Horizontal gene transfer contributes to evolution and the acquisition of new traits. In bacteria, horizontal gene transfer is often mediated by conjugative genetic elements that transfer directly from cell to cell. Integrative and conjugative elements (ICEs; also known as conjugative transposons) are mobile genetic elements that reside within a host genome but can excise to form a circle and transfer by conjugation to recipient cells. ICEs contribute to the spread of genes involved in pathogenesis, symbiosis, metabolism, and antibiotic resistance.

      Despite its importance, little is known about the mechanisms of conjugation in Gram-positive bacteria or how quickly or frequently transconjugants become donors. We visualized the transfer of the integrative and conjugative element ICEBs1 from a Bacillus subtilis donor to recipient cells in real time using fluorescence microscopy. We found that transfer of DNA from a donor to a recipient appeared to occur at a cell pole or along the lateral cell surface of either cell. Most importantly, we found that when acquired by 1 cell in a chain, ICEBs1 spread rapidly from cell to cell within the chain by additional sequential conjugation events.

      This intrachain conjugation is inherently more efficient than conjugation that is due to chance encounters between individual cells. Many bacterial species, including pathogenic, commensal, symbiotic, and nitrogen-fixing organisms, harbor ICEs and grow in chains, often as parts of microbial communities. It is likely that efficient intrachain spreading is a general feature of conjugative DNA transfer and serves to amplify the number of cells that acquire conjugative mobile genetic elements.

      IMPORTANCE

      Conjugative elements contribute to horizontal gene transfer and the acquisition of new traits. They are largely responsible for spreading antibiotic resistance in bacterial communities. To study the cell biology of conjugation, we visualized conjugative DNA transfer between Bacillus subtilis cells in real time using fluorescence microscopy.

      In contrast to previous predictions that transfer would occur preferentially from the donor cell pole, we found that transfer of DNA from a donor to a recipient appeared to occur at a cell pole or along the lateral cell surface of either cell. Most importantly, we found that when acquired by 1 cell in a chain, the conjugative DNA spread rapidly from cell to cell within the chain through sequential conjugation events. Since many bacterial species grow naturally in chains, this intrachain transfer is likely a common mechanism for accelerating the spread of conjugative elements within microbial communities.

      FOOTNOTES

      Citation Babic, A., M. B. Berkmen, C. A. Lee, and A. D. Grossman. 2011. Efficient gene transfer in bacterial cell chains. mBio 2(2):e00027-11. doi:10.1128/mBio.00027-11.
      Received 9 February 2011 Accepted 11 February 2011 Published 15 March 2011

      Full article: Efficient Gene Transfer in Bacterial Cell Chains

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