Conjugative Plasmids of Neisseria gonorrhoeae

Conjugative Plasmids of Neisseria gonorrhoeae

Emilia Pachulec, Chris van der Does

PLoS ONE 5(4): e9962. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009962


Many clinical isolates of the human pathogen Neisseria gonorrhoeae contain conjugative plasmids. The host range of these plasmids is limited to Neisseria species, but presence of a tetracycline (tetM) determinant inserted in several of these plasmids is an important cause of the rapid spread of tetracycline resistance. Previously plasmids with different backbones (Dutch and American type backbones) and with and without different tetM determinants (Dutch and American type tetM determinants) have been identified. Within the isolates tested, all plasmids with American or Dutch type tetM determinants contained a Dutch type plasmid backbone. This demonstrated that tetM determinants should not be used to differentiate between conjugal plasmid backbones. The nucleotide sequences of conjugative plasmids with Dutch type plasmid backbones either not containing the tetM determinant (pEP5233) or containing Dutch (pEP5289) or American (pEP5050) type tetM determinants were determined. Analysis of the backbone sequences showed that they belong to a novel IncP1 subfamily divergent from the IncP1α, β, γ, δ and ε subfamilies. The tetM determinants were inserted in a genetic load region found in all these plasmids. Insertion was accompanied by the insertion of a gene with an unknown function, and rearrangement of a toxin/antitoxin gene cluster. The genetic load region contains two toxin/antitoxins of the Zeta/Epsilon toxin/antitoxin family previously only found in Gram positive organisms and the virulence associated protein D of the VapD/VapX toxin/antitoxin family. Remarkably, presence of VapX of pJD1, a small cryptic neisserial plasmid, in the acceptor strain strongly increased the conjugation efficiency, suggesting that it functions as an antitoxin for the conjugative plasmid. The presence of the toxin and antitoxin on different plasmids might explain why the host range of this IncP1 plasmid is limited to Neisseria species. The isolated plasmids conjugated efficiently between N. gonorrhoeae strains, but did not enhance transfer of a genetic marker.

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