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Proc Biol Sci. 2019 Jun 26;286(1905):20191110. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2019.1110. Epub 2019 Jun 26.

Bacteria from natural populations transfer plasmids mostly towards their kin.

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Department of Biosciences, University of Exeter , Penryn Campus, Cornwall TR10 9FE , UK.


Plasmids play a key role in microbial ecology and evolution, yet the determinants of plasmid transfer rates are poorly understood. Particularly, interactions between donor hosts and potential recipients are understudied. Here, we investigate the importance of genetic similarity between naturally co-occurring Escherichia coli isolates in plasmid transfer. We uncover extensive variability, spanning over five orders of magnitude, in the ability of isolates to donate and receive two different plasmids, R1 and RP4. Overall, transfer is strongly biased towards clone-mates, but not correlated to genetic distance when donors and recipients are not clone-mates. Transfer is limited by the presence of a functional restriction-modification system in recipients, suggesting sharing of strain-specific defence systems contributes to bias towards kin. Such restriction of transfer to kin sets the stage for longer-term coevolutionary interactions leading to mutualism between plasmids and bacterial hosts in natural communities.


barriers to genetic exchange; plasmid conjugation; plasmid–host interaction; transfer rate

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