Accessory genes, such as antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) can spread horizontally by mobile genetic elements, including plasmids and (temperate) bacteriophages leading to increased bacterial fitness in particular environments. In contrast to plasmids, temperate phages i.e. viruses that can incorporate their own genetic material into their host bacteria (then called lysogen) can additionally increase their hosts’ fitness through their ability to kill phage-susceptible competitors. However, in contrast to ARG-transfer by plasmids (conjugation), which has been extensively studied, ARG-transfer by phages (lysogenization) has received far less attention. Here we combined experiments using , phage lambda and the Rp4 plasmid (phage and plasmid both with an ampicillin resistance gene) and mathematical models to test which mechanism (lysogenization or conjugation) dominates under which conditions.

In the absence of selection and in two-species experiments (Donor & Recipient), conjugation was significantly more common than lysogenization. However, in three-species experiments (DonorPlasmid, DonorPhage& Recipient) lysogenization rates increased by several orders of magnitude. By using phage-friendly environments that favour phage adsorption we were able to shift the ratio between lysogens and transconjugants even further towards lysogens and in extreme-events to the extinction of transconjugants. Mathematical models additionally allowed us to investigate how starting population sizes of both donors and the recipient influence conjugation and lysogenization dynamics. Taken together, our results suggest that plasmids and temperate phages can influence each other’s transfer rates which, in the present study system, seems to be largely driven by population size effects.

  • This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License.

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