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Genetics. Aug 2000; 155(4): 1505–1519.
PMCID: PMC1461221

Natural selection, infectious transfer and the existence conditions for bacterial plasmids.


Despite the near-ubiquity of plasmids in bacterial populations and the profound contribution of infectious gene transfer to the adaptation and evolution of bacteria, the mechanisms responsible for the maintenance of plasmids in bacterial populations are poorly understood. In this article, we address the question of how plasmids manage to persist over evolutionary time. Empirical studies suggest that plasmids are not infectiously transmitted at a rate high enough to be maintained as genetic parasites. In part i, we present a general mathematical proof that if this is the case, then plasmids will not be able to persist indefinitely solely by carrying genes that are beneficial or sometimes beneficial to their host bacteria. Instead, such genes should, in the long run, be incorporated into the bacterial chromosome. If the mobility of host-adaptive genes imposes a cost, that mobility will eventually be lost. In part ii, we illustrate a pair of mechanisms by which plasmids can be maintained indefinitely even when their rates of transmission are too low for them to be genetic parasites. First, plasmids may persist because they can transfer locally adapted genes to newly arriving strains bearing evolutionary innovations, and thereby preserve the local adaptations in the face of background selective sweeps. Second, plasmids may persist because of their ability to shuttle intermittently favored genes back and forth between various (noncompeting) bacterial strains, ecotypes, or even species.

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Selected References

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