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FEMS Microbiol Lett. 2009 Jun;296(2):282-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1574-6968.2009.01646.x. Epub 2009 May 8.

Evidence for dynamic exchange of qac gene cassettes between class 1 integrons and other integrons in freshwater biofilms.

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Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW, Australia.


Class 1 integrons carried by pathogens have acquired over 100 different gene cassettes encoding resistance to antimicrobial compounds, helping to generate a crisis in the management of infectious disease. It is presumed that these cassettes originated from environmental bacteria, but exchange of gene cassettes has surprisingly never been demonstrated outside laboratory or clinical contexts. We aimed to identify a natural environment where such exchanges might occur, and determine the phylogenetic range of participating integrons. Here we examine freshwater biofilms and show that families of cassettes conferring resistance to quaternary ammonium compounds (qac) are found on class 1 integrons identical to those from clinical contexts, on sequence variants of class 1 integrons only known from natural environments, and on other diverse classes of integrons only known from the chromosomes of soil and freshwater Proteobacteria. We conclude that gene cassettes might be readily shared between different integron classes found in environmental, commensal and pathogenic bacteria. This suggests that class 1 integrons in pathogens have access to a vast pool of gene cassettes, any of which could confer a phenotype of clinical relevance. Exploration of this resource might allow identification of resistance or virulence genes before they become part of multi-drug-resistant human pathogens.

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