Research article

The gossip paradox: Why do bacteria share genes?

  • Received: 08 January 2022 Revised: 14 February 2022 Accepted: 07 March 2022 Published: 28 March 2022
  • Bacteria, in contrast to eukaryotic cells, contain two types of genes: chromosomal genes that are fixed to the cell, and plasmids, smaller loops of DNA capable of being passed from one cell to another. The sharing of plasmid genes between individual bacteria and between bacterial lineages has contributed vastly to bacterial evolution, allowing specialized traits to 'jump ship' between one lineage or species and the next. The benefits of this generosity from the point of view of both recipient cell and plasmid are generally understood: plasmids receive new hosts and ride out selective sweeps across the population, recipient cells gain new traits (such as antibiotic resistance). Explaining this behavior from the point of view of donor cells is substantially more difficult. Donor cells pay a fitness cost in order to share plasmids, and run the risk of sharing advantageous genes with their competition and rendering their own lineage redundant, while seemingly receiving no benefit in return. Using both compartment based models and agent based simulations we demonstrate that 'secretive' genes which restrict horizontal gene transfer are favored over a wide range of models and parameter values, even when sharing carries no direct cost. 'Generous' chromosomal genes which are more permissive of plasmid transfer are found to have neutral fitness at best, and are generally disfavored by selection. Our findings lead to a peculiar paradox: given the obvious benefits of keeping secrets, why do bacteria share information so freely?

    Citation: Alastair D. Jamieson-Lane, Bernd Blasius. The gossip paradox: Why do bacteria share genes?[J]. Mathematical Biosciences and Engineering, 2022, 19(6): 5482-5508. doi: 10.3934/mbe.2022257

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  • Bacteria, in contrast to eukaryotic cells, contain two types of genes: chromosomal genes that are fixed to the cell, and plasmids, smaller loops of DNA capable of being passed from one cell to another. The sharing of plasmid genes between individual bacteria and between bacterial lineages has contributed vastly to bacterial evolution, allowing specialized traits to 'jump ship' between one lineage or species and the next. The benefits of this generosity from the point of view of both recipient cell and plasmid are generally understood: plasmids receive new hosts and ride out selective sweeps across the population, recipient cells gain new traits (such as antibiotic resistance). Explaining this behavior from the point of view of donor cells is substantially more difficult. Donor cells pay a fitness cost in order to share plasmids, and run the risk of sharing advantageous genes with their competition and rendering their own lineage redundant, while seemingly receiving no benefit in return. Using both compartment based models and agent based simulations we demonstrate that 'secretive' genes which restrict horizontal gene transfer are favored over a wide range of models and parameter values, even when sharing carries no direct cost. 'Generous' chromosomal genes which are more permissive of plasmid transfer are found to have neutral fitness at best, and are generally disfavored by selection. Our findings lead to a peculiar paradox: given the obvious benefits of keeping secrets, why do bacteria share information so freely?



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