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Appl Environ Microbiol. Jan 1991; 57(1): 85–92.
PMCID: PMC182668

Development of efficient suicide mechanisms for biological containment of bacteria.


To optimize plasmid containment, we have systematically investigated the factors that limit the killing efficiency of a suicide system based on the relF gene from Escherichia coli controlled by inducible lac promoters and placed on plasmids. In induction experiments with this suicide system, killing efficiency was unaffected by temperature and growth medium; there was no requirement for great promoter strength or high plasmid copy number. We could demonstrate that the factors limiting killing were the mutation rate of the suicide function and the reduced growth rate caused by a basal level of expression of the suicide gene during normal growth, which can give a selective growth advantage to cells with mutated suicide functions. The capacity of the plasmid-carried killing system to contain the plasmid was tested in transformation, transduction, and conjugational mobilization. The rate of plasmid transfer detected in these experiments seemed too high to provide adequate biological containment. As expected from the induction experiments, plasmids that escaped containment in these transfer experiments turned out to be mutated in the suicide function. With lac-induced suicide as a test, the efficiency of the system was improved by tightening the repression of the suicide gene, thereby preventing selection of cells mutated in the killing function. Reduction of the mutational inactivation rate of the suicide system by duplication of the suicide function augmented the efficiency of the suicide dramatically. These results permit the construction of extremely efficient biological containment systems.

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Selected References

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