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Genetics. 2003 Dec;165(4):1641-9.

Amelioration of the cost of conjugative plasmid carriage in Eschericha coli K12.

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Department of Biology, University of California, San Diego, California 92093, USA.


Although plasmids can provide beneficial functions to their host bacteria, they might confer a physiological or energetic cost. This study examines how natural selection may reduce the cost of carrying conjugative plasmids with drug-resistance markers in the absence of antibiotic selection. We studied two plasmids, R1 and RP4, both of which carry multiple drug resistance genes and were shown to impose an initial fitness cost on Escherichia coli. To determine if and how the cost could be reduced, we subjected plasmid-containing bacteria to 1100 generations of evolution in batch cultures. Analysis of the evolved populations revealed that plasmid loss never occurred, but that the cost was reduced through genetic changes in both the plasmids and the bacteria. Changes in the plasmids were inferred by the demonstration that evolved plasmids no longer imposed a cost on their hosts when transferred to a plasmid-free clone of the ancestral E. coli. Changes in the bacteria were shown by the lowered cost when the ancestral plasmids were introduced into evolved bacteria that had been cured of their (evolved) plasmids. Additionally, changes in the bacteria were inferred because conjugative transfer rates of evolved R1 plasmids were lower in the evolved host than in the ancestral host. Our results suggest that once a conjugative bacterial plasmid has invaded a bacterial population it will remain even if the original selection is discontinued.

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