Bacteria exist in complex communities that include not only many other bacterial species but also diverse mobile genetic elements which accelerate bacterial evolution via horizontal gene transfer. How multiple mobile genetic elements interact in bacterial populations and how this affects plasmid dynamics remains poorly understood. We experimentally evolved populations of Pseudomonas fluorescens SBW25 either singly-infected or co-infected with two conjugative mercury resistance plasmids either with or without positive selection (i.e. addition of Hg(II)). We show that co-infection led to higher levels of mercury resistance in the bacterial population in the absence of positive selection. Consistent with this, in the absence of positive selection the plasmids could stably coexist within bacterial cells resulting in the maintenance co-infection. By contrast, with positive selection, plasmid coexistence was destabilised, leading to the dominance of a single plasmid in several replicate bacterial populations. Plasmid co-infection appears to alter the trajectory of compensatory evolution to ameliorate the cost of plasmid carriage and may have selected for alternative mechanisms compared to singly-infected populations. Stable plasmid co-infection without positive selection for plasmid-encoded traits suggests that environments where plasmids are useless may be hot-spots for genomic innovation via plasmid-plasmid recombination.

  • This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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