Infections with Acinetobacter baumannii, one of the most troublesome and least studied multidrug-resistant superbugs, are increasing at alarming rates. A. baumannii encodes a type VI secretion system (T6SS), an antibacterial apparatus of Gram-negative bacteria used to kill competitors. Expression of the T6SS varies among different strains of A. baumannii, for which the regulatory mechanisms are unknown. Here, we show that several multidrug-resistant strains of A. baumannii harbor a large, self-transmissible resistance plasmid that carries the negative regulators for T6SS. T6SS activity is silenced in plasmid-containing, antibiotic-resistant cells, while part of the population undergoes frequent plasmid loss and activation of the T6SS. This activation results in T6SS-mediated killing of competing bacteria but renders A. baumannii susceptible to antibiotics. Our data show that a plasmid that has evolved to harbor antibiotic resistance genes plays a role in the differentiation of cells specialized in the elimination of competing bacteria.
Keywords: Acinetobacter baumannii; T6SS; antibiotic resistance; bacterial secretion; plasmid.