The role of bacteriocins as selfish genetic elements Academic Article uri icon

abstract

  • Bacteria produce a wide arsenal of toxic compounds in order to kill competing species. Bacteriocins, protein-based toxins produced by nearly all bacteria, have generally been considered a ubiquitous anti-competitor strategy, used to kill competing bacterial strains. Some of these bacteriocins are encoded on plasmids, which also code for closely linked immunity compounds (thereby rendering toxin producing cells immune to their own toxin). However, the production of bacteriocins can also be interpreted as a means to promote plasmid stability by preferentially selecting for cells carrying the plasmid. If, for example, a cell were to lose the plasmid, it would no longer produce the immunity compound and would be killed by its bacteriocin-producing clone mates. In this respect, bacteriocins can be regarded as similar to previously described toxin–antitoxin systems that are able promote the stable transmission of plasmids to daughter cells. In order to test this prediction, we carried out an experimental evolution study using the bacterium Escherichia coli, finding that bacteriocins can indeed select for the stable maintenance of plasmids. This suggests that bacteriocins can act primarily as selfish genetic elements promoting their own transmission in the population, which may help explain their unique ecology and evolution.

publication date

  • January 1, 2013