Horizontal transfer of genomic islands (GEIs), that is, chromosomal regions encoding functions that can be advantageous for the host, plays a key role in bacterial evolution, but their mechanisms of transfer remained elusive for a long time. Recent data suggest that numerous GEIs belong to noncanonical classes of mobile genetic elements (MGEs) that can transfer by conjugation. Among them, the integrative and conjugative elements encode their own excision, conjugative transfer, and integration, whereas the integrative mobilizable elements are autonomous for excision and integration but require the conjugation machinery of helper elements to transfer. Others can self-transfer but require the recombination machinery of the recipient cell to integrate. All these MGEs evolve by acquisition, deletion, or exchange of modules, that is, groups of genes involved in the same function. Moreover, composite GEIs can result from the insertion of a MGE within another or from the site-specific integration of an incoming MGE into one of the recombination sites flanking a resident GEI (tandem accretion). Tandem accretion enables the cis-conjugative mobilization of highly degenerated and nonautonomous GEIs, the cis-mobilizable elements. All these mechanisms contribute to the plasticity and complex evolution of GEIs and explain the highly diverse tableau revealed by more and more genome comparisons.
Keywords: conjugative transposon; mobilizable transposon; mobilization in cis; mobilization in trans; pathogenicity island; site-specific recombination.
© 2013 Federation of European Microbiological Societies. Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd. All rights reserved.