Natural Transformation Facilitates Transfer of Transposons, Integrons and Gene Cassettes between Bacterial Species
We have investigated to what extent natural transformation acting on free DNA substrates can facilitate transfer of mobile elements including transposons, integrons and/or gene cassettes between bacterial species. Naturally transformable cells of Acinetobacter baylyi were exposed to DNA from integron-carrying strains of the genera Acinetobacter, Citrobacter, Enterobacter, Escherichia, Pseudomonas, and Salmonella to determine the nature and frequency of transfer. Exposure to the various DNA sources resulted in acquisition of antibiotic resistance traits as well as entire integrons and transposons, over a 24 h exposure period. DNA incorporation was not solely dependent on integrase functions or the genetic relatedness between species. DNA sequence analyses revealed that several mechanisms facilitated stable integration in the recipient genome depending on the nature of the donor DNA; homologous or heterologous recombination and various types of transposition (Tn21-like and IS26-like). Both donor strains and transformed isolates were extensively characterized by antimicrobial susceptibility testing, integron- and cassette-specific PCRs, DNA sequencing, pulsed field gel electrophoreses (PFGE), Southern blot hybridizations, and by re-transformation assays. Two transformant strains were also genome-sequenced. Our data demonstrate that natural transformation facilitates interspecies transfer of genetic elements, suggesting that the transient presence of DNA in the cytoplasm may be sufficient for genomic integration to occur. Our study provides a plausible explanation for why sequence-conserved transposons, IS elements and integrons can be found disseminated among bacterial species. Moreover, natural transformation of integron harboring populations of competent bacteria revealed that interspecies exchange of gene cassettes can be highly efficient, and independent on genetic relatedness between donor and recipient. In conclusion, natural transformation provides a much broader capacity for horizontal acquisitions of genetic elements and hence, resistance traits from divergent species than previously assumed. Genetic elements, such as transposons and integrons, frequently carry antimicrobial resistance determinants and can be found widely disseminated among pathogenic bacteria. Their distribution pattern suggests dissemination through horizontal gene transfer. The role of natural transformation in horizontal transfer of genetic elements other than those that are self-replicative (plasmids) has remained largely unexplored. We have tested if natural transformation can facilitate transfer of transposons and class 1 integrons between bacterial species. We here provide experimental evidence showing that natural transformation can be a general mechanism for dissemination of genetic elements that by themselves do not encode interspecies transfer functions (e.g. transposons, insertion sequences). We demonstrate that antibiotic resistance determinants present in such genetic elements can spread by natural transformation between species of clinical interest. We show by quantitative data that interspecies exchange of resistance gene cassettes is highly efficient among integron-containing strains and species. Our study also provides a plausible explanation for how sequence-conserved integrons can become distributed among bacterial species.