Recent research has revealed that horizontal gene transfer and biofilm formation are connected processes. Although published research investigating this interconnectedness is still limited, we will review this subject in order to highlight the potential of these observations because of their believed importance in the understanding of the adaptation and subsequent evolution of social traits in bacteria. Here, we discuss current evidence for such interconnectedness centred on plasmids. Horizontal transfer rates are typically higher in biofilm communities compared with those in planktonic states. Biofilms, furthermore, promote plasmid stability and may enhance the host range of mobile genetic elements that are transferred horizontally. Plasmids, on the other hand, are very well suited to promote the evolution of social traits such as biofilm formation. This, essentially, transpires because plasmids are independent replicons that enhance their own success by promoting inter-bacterial interactions. They typically also carry genes that heighten their hosts' direct fitness. Furthermore, current research shows that the so-called mafia traits encoded on mobile genetic elements can enforce bacteria to maintain stable social interactions. It also indicates that horizontal gene transfer ultimately enhances the relatedness of bacteria carrying the mobile genetic elements of the same origin. The perspective of this review extends to an overall interconnectedness between horizontal gene transfer, mobile genetic elements and social evolution of bacteria.
© 2012 Federation of European Microbiological Societies. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved.