Control of genes for conjugative transfer of plasmids and other mobile elements

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Conjugative transfer is a primary means of spread of mobile genetic elements (plasmids and transposons) between bacteria.It leads to the dissemination and evolution of the genes (such as those conferring resistance to antibiotics) which are carried by the plasmid. Expression of the plasmid genes needed for conjugative transfer is tightly regulated so as to minimise the burden on the host. For plasmids such as those belonging to the IncP group this results in downregulation of the transfer genes once all bacteria have a functional conjugative apparatus. For F-like plasmids (apart from F itself which is a derepressed mutant) tight control results in very few bacteria having a conjugative apparatus. Chance encounters between the rare transfer-proficient bacteria and a potential recipient initiate a cascade of transfer which can continue until all potential recipients have acquired the plasmid. Other systems express their transfer genes in response to specific stimuli. For the pheromone-responsive plasmids of Enterococcus it is small peptide signals from potential recipients which trigger the conjugative transfer genes. For the Ti plasmids of Agrobacterium it is the presence of wounded plants which are susceptible to infection which stimulates T-DNA transfer to plants. Transfer and integration of T-DNA induces production of opines which the plasmid-positive bacteria can utilise. They multiply and when they reach an appropriate density their plasmid transfer system is switched on to allow transfer of the Ti plasmid to other bacteria. Finally some conjugative transfer systems are induced by the antibiotics to which the elements confer resistance. Understanding these control circuits may help to modify management of microbial communities where plasmid transfer is either desirable or undesirable. z 1998 Published by Elsevier Science B.V.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)291-319
Number of pages29
JournalFEMS Microbiology Reviews
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 1998


  • Agrobacterium/genetics
  • Conjugation, Genetic
  • DNA, Bacterial
  • Enterococcus/genetics
  • Genes, Bacterial
  • Plasmids/genetics


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