Essential gene acquisition destabilizes plasmid inheritance

Tanita Wein, Yiqing Wang, Myriam Barz, Fenna T. Stücker,, Katrin Hammerschmt, Tal Dagan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Extra-chromosomal genetic elements are important drivers of evolutionary transformations and ecological adaptations in prokaryotes with their evolutionary success often depending on their 'utility' to the host. Examples are plasmids encoding antibiotic resistance genes, which are known to proliferate in the presence of antibiotics. Plasmids carrying an essential host function are recognized as permanent residents in their host. Essential plasmids have been reported in several taxa where they often encode essential metabolic functions; nonetheless, their evolution remains poorly understood. Here we show that essential genes are rarely encoded on plasmids; evolving essential plasmids in Escherichia coli we further find that acquisition of an essential chromosomal gene by a plasmid can lead to plasmid extinction. A comparative genomics analysis of Escherichia isolates reveals few plasmid-encoded essential genes, yet these are often integrated into plasmid-related functions; an example is the GroEL/GroES chaperonin. Experimental evolution of a chaperonin-encoding plasmid shows that the acquisition of an essential gene reduces plasmid fitness regardless of the stability of plasmid inheritance. Our results suggest that essential plasmid emergence leads to a dose effect caused by gene redundancy. The detrimental effect of essential gene acquisition on plasmid inheritance constitutes a barrier for plasmid-mediated lateral gene transfer and supplies a mechanistic understanding for the rarity of essential genes in extra-chromosomal genetic elements.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1009656
Number of pages22
JournalPLoS Genetics
Issue number7
StatePublished - 12 Jul 2021
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Genetics(clinical)
  • Cancer Research


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