Host Range and Genetic Plasticity Explain the Coexistence of Integrative and Extrachromosomal Mobile Genetic Elements
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Self-transmissible mobile genetic elements drive horizontal gene transfer between prokaryotes. Some of these elements integrate in the chromosome, whereas others replicate autonomously as plasmids. Recent works showed the existence of few differences, and occasional interconversion, between the two types of elements. Here, we enquired on why evolutionary processes have maintained the two types of mobile genetic elements by comparing integrative and conjugative elements (ICE) with extrachromosomal ones (conjugative plasmids) of the highly abundant MPFT conjugative type. We observed that plasmids encode more replicases, partition systems, and antibiotic resistance genes, whereas ICEs encode more integrases and metabolism-associated genes. ICEs and plasmids have similar average sizes, but plasmids are much more variable, have more DNA repeats, and exchange genes more frequently. On the other hand, we found that ICEs are more frequently transferred between distant taxa. We propose a model where the different genetic plasticity and amplitude of host range between elements explain the co-occurrence of integrative and extrachromosomal elements in microbial populations. In particular, the conversion from ICE to plasmid allows ICE to be more plastic, while the conversion from plasmid to ICE allows the expansion of the element?s host range.