Conjugative transposons: the tip of the iceberg

Mol Microbiol. 2002 Nov;46(3):601-10. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2958.2002.03191.x.


Elements that excise and integrate, such as prophages, and transfer by conjugation, such as plasmids, have been found in various bacteria. These elements appear to have a diversified set of characteristics including cell-to-cell contact using pili or cell aggregation, transfer of single-stranded or double-stranded DNA, low or high specificity of integration and serine or tyrosine recombinases. This has led to a highly heterogeneous nomenclature, including conjugative transposons, integrative 'plasmids', genomic islands and numerous unclassified elements. However, all these elements excise by site-specific recombination, transfer the resulting circular form by conjugation and integrate by recombination between a specific site of this circular form and a site in the genome of their host. Whereas replication of the circular form probably occurs during conjugation, this replication is not involved in the maintenance of the element. In this review, we show that these elements share very similar characteristics and, therefore, we propose to classify them as integrative and conjugative elements (ICEs). These elements evolve by acquisition or exchanges of modules with various transferable elements including at least ICEs and plasmids. The ICEs are probably widespread among the bacteria.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Conjugation, Genetic*
  • DNA Transposable Elements / genetics*
  • Integrases
  • Recombination, Genetic


  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • Integrases