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Broad host range plasmids can invade an unexpectedly diverse fraction of a soil bacterial community.

ABSTRACT

Conjugal plasmids can provide microbes with full complements of new genes and constitute potent vehicles for horizontal gene transfer. Conjugal plasmid transfer is deemed responsible for the rapid spread of antibiotic resistance among microbes. While broad host range plasmids are known to transfer to diverse hosts in pure culture, the extent of their ability to transfer in the complex bacterial communities present in most habitats has not been comprehensively studied. Here, we isolated and characterized transconjugants with a degree of sensitivity not previously realized to investigate the transfer range of IncP- and IncPromA-type broad host range plasmids from three proteobacterial donors to a soil bacterial community. We identified transfer to many different recipients belonging to 11 different bacterial phyla. The prevalence of transconjugants belonging to diverse Gram-positive Firmicutes and Actinobacteria suggests that inter-Gram plasmid transfer of IncP-1 and IncPromA-type plasmids is a frequent phenomenon. While the plasmid receiving fractions of the community were both plasmid- and donor- dependent, we identified a core super-permissive fraction that could take up different plasmids from diverse donor strains. This fraction, comprising 80% of the identified transconjugants, thus has the potential to dominate IncP- and IncPromA-type plasmid transfer in soil. Our results demonstrate that these broad host range plasmids have a hitherto unrecognized potential to transfer readily to very diverse bacteria and can, therefore, directly connect large proportions of the soil bacterial gene pool. This finding reinforces the evolutionary and medical significances of these plasmids.