The extent and characteristics of DNA transfer between plasmids and chromosomes

Plasmids are extrachromosomal genetic elements that reside in prokaryotes. The acquisition of plasmids encoding beneficial traits can facilitate short-term survival in harsh environmental conditions or long-term adaptation of new ecological niches. Due to their ability to transfer between cells, plasmids are considered agents of gene transfer. Nonetheless, the frequency of DNA transfer between plasmids and chromosomes remains understudied. Using a novel approach for detection of homologous loci between genome-pairs we uncover gene sharing with the chromosome in 1,974 (66%) plasmids residing in 1,016 (78%) taxonomically diverse isolates. The majority of homologous loci correspond to mobile elements, which may be duplicated in the host chromosomes in tens of copies. Neighboring shared genes often encode similar functional categories, indicating the transfer multigene functional units. Rare transfer events of antibiotics resistance genes are observed mainly with mobile elements. The frequent erosion of sequence similarity in homologous regions indicates that the transferred DNA is often devoid of function. DNA transfer between plasmids and chromosomes thus generates genetic variation that is akin to workings of endosymbiotic gene transfer in eukaryote evolution. Our findings imply that plasmid contribution to gene transfer most often corresponds to transfer of the plasmid entity rather than transfer of protein-coding genes between plasmids and chromosomes.


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