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Res Microbiol. 2004 Jun;155(5):376-86.

Shaping bacterial genomes with integrative and conjugative elements.

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Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology, Tufts University School of Medicine, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, 136 Harrison Avenue, Boston, MA 02111, USA.


Integrative and conjugative elements (ICEs) are self-transmissible mobile genetic elements that are increasingly recognized to contribute to lateral gene flow in prokaryotes. ICEs, like most temperate bacteriophages integrate into the genome and like conjugative plasmids disseminate by conjugative transfer to new hosts. Thought of schematically, the structure of ICEs is similar to that of other types of the mobile elements; ICEs have a backbone composed of three modules ensuring maintenance, dissemination and regulation. This backbone can acquire additional functions probably through the action of insertion sequences, transposons and specific recombinases. Previously, ICEs were thought of as only vectors for transfer of antibiotic resistance genes, but it is now evident that ICEs can mediate the transfer of a very diverse set of functions. ICEs allow bacteria to rapidly adapt to new environmental conditions and to colonize new niches. Like phages and conjugative plasmids they also likely mediate the transfer of virulence determinants. ICEs shape the bacterial genome, promoting variability between strains of the same species and distributing genes between unrelated bacterial genera. Finally, we propose that by utilizing conserved integration sites, ICEs may promote the mobilization of genomic islands.

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