Plasmids are important in evolution and adaptation of host bacteria, yet we lack a comprehensive picture of their own natural variation. We used replicon typing and RFLP analysis to assess diversity and distribution of plasmids in the ECOR, SARA, SARB and SARC reference collections of Escherichia coli and Salmonella. Plasmids, especially large (≥30 kb) plasmids, are abundant in these collections. Host species and genotype clearly impact plasmid prevalence; plasmids are more abundant in ECOR than SAR, but, within ECOR, subgroup B2 strains have the fewest large plasmids. The majority of large plasmids have unique RFLP patterns, suggesting high variation, even within dominant replicon families IncF and IncI1. We found only four conserved plasmid types within ECOR, none of which are widely distributed. Within SAR, conserved plasmid types are primarily serovar-specific, including a pSLT-like plasmid in 13 Typhimurium strains. Conservation of pSLT contrasts with variability of other plasmids, suggesting evolution of serovar-specific virulence plasmids is distinct from that of most enterobacterial plasmids. We sequenced a conserved serovar Heidelberg plasmid but did not detect virulence or antibiotic resistance genes. Our data illustrate the high degree of natural variation in large plasmids of E. coli and Salmonella, even among plasmids sharing backbone genes.
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