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Mol Microbiol. 1998 Sep;29(5):1137-45.

Timing, self-control and a sense of direction are the secrets of multicopy plasmid stability.

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Department of Genetics, Cambridge, UK.


Multicopy plasmids of Escherichia coli are distributed randomly at cell division and, as long as copy number remains high, plasmid-free cells arise only rarely. Copy number variation is minimized by plasmid-encoded control circuits, and the limited data available suggest that deviations are corrected efficiently under most circumstances. However, plasmid multimers confuse control circuits, leading to copy number depression. To make matters worse, multimers out-replicate monomers and accumulate clonally within the culture, creating a subpopulation of cells with a significantly increased rate of plasmid loss. Multimers of natural multicopy plasmids, such as ColE1, are resolved to monomers by a site-specific recombination system (Xer-cer) whose activity is limited to intramolecular recombination. Recombination requires the heterodimeric XerCD recombinase plus two accessory proteins (ArgR and PepA), which activate recombination and prevent intermolecular events. Evidence is accumulating that Xer-cer recombination is relatively slow, and there is a risk that cells might divide before multimer resolution is complete. The Rcd transcript encoded within cer may solve this problem by preventing the division of multimer-containing cells. Working in concert, the triumvirate of copy number control, multimer resolution and cell division control achieve an extremely high fidelity of plasmid maintenance.

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