Gene transfer agents (GTAs) are genetic elements that have the potential to carry out high frequency horizontal gene transfer. GTAs are similar to small bacteriophages in many ways but, instead of prioritizing the spread of their own genes, they package and disseminate the entire genome of their bacterial host. Indiscriminate transfer of bacterial genes could clearly have a major impact on bacterial evolution, fitness and antimicrobial resistance. Over the past decade, numerous pleiotropic systems have been shown to influence GTA production (e.g. nutrient stress, quorum sensing, SOS response etc.) but all act indirectly and so the mechanism of activation has remained elusive. I will present recent work that identified the missing link that couples GTA production to host regulatory pathways. I will also offer insights into the mechanism of random DNA packaging, the evolutionary role of GTAs in the environment and their potential ecological niche.

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