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Mol Microbiol. 2011 Sep;81(6):1499-510. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2958.2011.07786.x. Epub 2011 Aug 15.

Biofilm growth alters regulation of conjugation by a bacterial pheromone.

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Department of Microbiology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA.


Conjugation is an important mode of horizontal gene transfer in bacteria, enhancing the spread of antibiotic resistance. In clinical settings, biofilms are likely locations for antibiotic resistance transfer events involving nosocomial pathogens such as Enterococcus faecalis. Here we demonstrate that growth in biofilms alters the induction of conjugation by a sex pheromone in E. faecalis. Mathematical modelling suggested that a higher plasmid copy number in biofilm cells would enhance a switch-like behaviour in the pheromone response of donor cells with a delayed, but increased response to the mating signal. Alterations in plasmid copy number, and a bimodal response to induction of conjugation in populations of plasmid-containing donor cells were both observed in biofilms, consistent with the predictions of the model. The pheromone system may have evolved such that donor cells in biofilms are only induced to transfer when they are in extremely close proximity to potential recipients in the biofilm community. These results may have important implications for development of chemotherapeutic agents to block resistance transfer and treat biofilm-related clinical infections.

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