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Trends Microbiol. 2012 Jun;20(6):262-7. doi: 10.1016/j.tim.2012.04.003. Epub 2012 May 5.

Plasmid-mediated horizontal gene transfer is a coevolutionary process.

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Institute of Integrative Biology, University of Liverpool, Bioscience Building, Liverpool, UK.


Conjugative plasmids are key agents of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) that accelerate bacterial adaptation by vectoring ecologically important traits between strains and species. However, although many conjugative plasmids carry beneficial traits, all plasmids exert physiological costs-of-carriage on bacteria. The existence of conjugative plasmids, therefore, presents a paradox because non-beneficial plasmids should be lost to purifying selection, whereas beneficial genes carried on plasmids should be integrated into the bacterial chromosome. Several ecological solutions to the paradox have been proposed, but none account for co-adaptation of bacteria and conjugative plasmids. Drawing upon evidence from experimental evolution, we argue that HGT via conjugation can only be fully understood in a coevolutionary framework.

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