Integrative and conjugative elements (ICEs) are mobile genetic elements that play a key role in bacterial adaptation. Such elements are found in almost every bacterial genera and species, and often code for adaptive traits conferring selective advantages to their host. ICEs maintain by integrating into and replicating along with a replicon of the host genome. ICEs can propagate by conjugative transfer toward a recipient cell following excision from the replicon as a circular covalently-closed molecule. For a long time, the excised form of ICEs was assumed to be non-replicative. This assumption predicts that excised ICEs are sensitive to loss during cell division, unless they carry stabilization systems such as addiction modules or antibiotic resistance genes. Over the past few years, growing evidence have been presented that support conditional replication of the circular intermediate as an intrinsic feature of ICEs. We recently confirmed this feature in the large family of SXT/R391 ICEs, which thrive in several species of Enterobacteriaceae and Vibrionaceae. Furthermore, we demonstrated that SXT/R391 ICEs encode a functional plasmid-like type II partition system that enhances their stability, such systems being probably encoded by other ICEs. The lifecycle of ICEs is therefore much more complex than initially thought as many ICEs may use plasmid-like features to improve their stability and dissemination.
Keywords: SXT/R391; conjugation; integrative and conjugative element; partition; replication; stability.