The coevolution of gene mobility and sociality in bacteria

Abstract : Bacteria are social organisms which participate in multiple cooperative and group behaviours. They moreover have peculiar genetic systems, as they often bear mobile genetic elements like plasmids, molecular symbionts that are the cause of widespread horizontal gene transfer and play a large role in bacterial evolution. Both cooperation and horizontal transfer have consequences for human health: cooperative behaviours are very often involved in the virulence of pathogens, and horizontal gene transfer leads to the spread of antibiotic resistance. The evolution of plasmid transfer has mainly been analyzed in terms of infectious benefits for selfish mobile elements. However, chromosomal genes can also modulate horizontal transfer. A huge diversity in transfer rates is observed among bacterial isolates, suggesting a complex co-evolution between plasmids and hosts. Moreover, plasmids are enriched in genes involved in social behaviours, and so could play a key role in bacterial cooperative behaviours. We study here the coevolution of gene mobility and sociality in bacteria. To investigate the selective pressures acting on plasmid transfer and public good production, we use both mathematical modelling and a synthetic system that we constructed where we can independently control public good cooperation and plasmid conjugation in Escherichia coli. We first show experimentally that horizontal transfer allows the specific maintenance of public good alleles in a structured population by increasing relatedness at the gene-level. We further demonstrate experimentally and theoretically that this in turn allows for second-order selection of transfer ability: when cooperation is needed, alleles promoting donor and recipient abilities for public good traits can be selected both on the plasmid and on the chromosome in structured populations. Moreover, donor ability for private good traits can also be selected on the chromosome, provided that transfer happens towards kin. The interactions between transfer and cooperation can finally lead to an association between transfer and public good production alleles, explaining the high frequency of genes related to cooperation that are located on plasmids. Globally, these results provide insight into the mechanisms maintaining cooperation in bacteria, and may suggest ways to target cooperative virulence.
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Tatiana Dimitriu. The coevolution of gene mobility and sociality in bacteria. Agricultural sciences. Université René Descartes - Paris V, 2014. English. ⟨NNT : 2014PA05T005⟩. ⟨tel-00993436⟩

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