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J Bacteriol. 2012 Dec;194(24):6790-801. doi: 10.1128/JB.01210-12. Epub 2012 Oct 5.

Conjugal transfer of a virulence plasmid in the opportunistic intracellular actinomycete Rhodococcus equi.

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  • 1Department of Infectious Diseases, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA.


Rhodococcus equi is a facultative intracellular, Gram-positive, soilborne actinomycete which can cause severe pyogranulomatous pneumonia with abscessation in young horses (foals) and in immunocompromised people, such as persons with AIDS. All strains of R. equi isolated from foals and approximately a third isolated from humans contain a large, ~81-kb plasmid which is essential for the intramacrophage growth of the organism and for virulence in foals and murine in vivo model systems. We found that the entire virulence plasmid could be transferred from plasmid-containing strains of R. equi (donor) to plasmid-free R. equi strains (recipient) at a high frequency and that plasmid transmission reestablished the capacity for intracellular growth in macrophages. Plasmid transfer required living cells and cell-to-cell contact and was unaffected by the presence of DNase, factors pointing to conjugation as the major means of genetic transfer. Deletion of a putative relaxase-encoding gene, traA, located in the proposed conjugative region of the plasmid, abolished plasmid transfer. Reversion of the traA mutation restored plasmid transmissibility. Finally, plasmid transmission to other Rhodococcus species and some additional related organisms was demonstrated. This is the first study showing a virulence plasmid transfer in R. equi, and it establishes a mechanism by which the virulence plasmid can move among bacteria in the soil.

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