Sociobiological Control of Plasmid Copy Number in Bacteria.
Watve MM, Dahanukar N, Watve MG (2010)
PLoS ONE 5(2): e9328. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009328
All genes critical for plasmid replication regulation are located on the plasmid rather than on the host chromosome. It is possible therefore that there can be copy-up “cheater” mutants. In spite of this possibility, low copy number plasmids appear to exist stably in host populations. We examined this paradox using a multilevel selection model. Simulations showed that, a slightly higher copy number mutant could out-compete the wild type. Consequently, another mutant with still higher copy number could invade the first invader. However, the realized benefit of increasing intra-host fitness was saturating whereas that of inter-host fitness was exponential. As a result, above a threshold, intra-host selection was overcompensated by inter-host selection and the low copy number wild type plasmid could back invade a very high copy number plasmid. This led to a rock-paper-scissor (RPS) like situation that allowed the coexistence of plasmids with varied copy numbers. Furthermore, another type of cheater that had lost the genes required for conjugation but could hitchhike on a conjugal plasmid, could further reduce the advantage of copy-up mutants. These sociobiological interactions may compliment molecular mechanisms of replication regulation in stabilizing the copy numbers.