Dynamics of the IncW genetic backbone imply general trends in conjugative plasmid evolution

FEMS Microbiol Rev. 2006 Nov;30(6):942-66. doi: 10.1111/j.1574-6976.2006.00042.x. Epub 2006 Oct 6.


Plasmids cannot be understood as mere tools for genetic exchange: they are themselves subject to the forces of evolution. Their genomic and phylogenetic features have been less studied in this respect. Focusing on the IncW incompatibility group, which includes the smallest known conjugative plasmids, we attempt to unveil some common trends in plasmid evolution. The functional modules of IncW genetic backbone are described, with emphasis on their architecture and relationships to other plasmid groups. Some plasmid regions exhibit strong phylogenetic mosaicism, in striking contrast to others of unusual synteny conservation. The presence of genes of unknown function that are widely distributed in plasmid genomes is also emphasized, exposing the existence of ill-defined yet conserved plasmid functions. Conjugation is an essential hallmark of IncW plasmid biology and special attention is given to the organization and evolution of its transfer modules. Genetic exchange between plasmids and their hosts is analysed by following the evolution of the type IV secretion system. Adaptation of the trw conjugative machinery to pathogenicity functions in Bartonella is discussed as an example of how plasmids can change their host modus vivendi. Starting from the phage paradigm, our analysis articulates novel concepts that apply to plasmid evolution.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bartonella / genetics
  • Bartonella / pathogenicity
  • Bartonella Infections / microbiology
  • Conjugation, Genetic*
  • DNA Replication
  • DNA, Bacterial / genetics*
  • DNA, Bacterial / metabolism
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genes, Bacterial
  • Humans
  • Open Reading Frames / genetics
  • Plasmids / genetics*
  • Plasmids / metabolism
  • Replicon
  • Virulence


  • DNA, Bacterial