Horizontal DNA transfer (HDT) is a pervasive mechanism of diversification in many microbial species, but its primary evolutionary role remains controversial. Much recent research has emphasised the adaptive benefit of acquiring novel DNA, but here we argue instead that intragenomic conflict provides a coherent framework for understanding the evolutionary origins of HDT. To test this hypothesis, we developed a mathematical model of a clonally descended bacterial population undergoing HDT through transmission of mobile genetic elements (MGEs) and genetic transformation. Including the known bias of transformation toward the acquisition of shorter alleles into the model suggested it could be an effective means of counteracting the spread of MGEs. Both constitutive and transient competence for transformation were found to provide an effective defence against parasitic MGEs; transient competence could also be effective at permitting the selective spread of MGEs conferring a benefit on their host bacterium. The coordination of transient competence with cell-cell killing, observed in multiple species, was found to result in synergistic blocking of MGE transmission through releasing genomic DNA for homologous recombination while simultaneously reducing horizontal MGE spread by lowering the local cell density. To evaluate the feasibility of the functions suggested by the modelling analysis, we analysed genomic data from longitudinal sampling of individuals carrying Streptococcus pneumoniae. This revealed the frequent within-host coexistence of clonally descended cells that differed in their MGE infection status, a necessary condition for the proposed mechanism to operate. Additionally, we found multiple examples of MGEs inhibiting transformation through integrative disruption of genes encoding the competence machinery across many species, providing evidence of an ongoing "arms race." Reduced rates of transformation have also been observed in cells infected by MGEs that reduce the concentration of extracellular DNA through secretion of DNases. Simulations predicted that either mechanism of limiting transformation would benefit individual MGEs, but also that this tactic's effectiveness was limited by competition with other MGEs coinfecting the same cell. A further observed behaviour we hypothesised to reduce elimination by transformation was MGE activation when cells become competent. Our model predicted that this response was effective at counteracting transformation independently of competing MGEs. Therefore, this framework is able to explain both common properties of MGEs, and the seemingly paradoxical bacterial behaviours of transformation and cell-cell killing within clonally related populations, as the consequences of intragenomic conflict between self-replicating chromosomes and parasitic MGEs. The antagonistic nature of the different mechanisms of HDT over short timescales means their contribution to bacterial evolution is likely to be substantially greater than previously appreciated.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS biology

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Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Imperial College London, London, United Kingdom.


Streptococcus, Prophages, Gene Transfer, Horizontal, Interspersed Repetitive Sequences, DNA Transformation Competence