Conjugation is a key mechanism of bacterial evolution that involves mobile genetic elements. Recent findings indicated that the main actors of conjugative transfer are not the well-known conjugative or mobilizable plasmids but are the integrated elements. This paper reviews current knowledge on "integrative and mobilizable elements" (IMEs) that have recently been shown to be highly diverse and highly widespread but are still rarely described. IMEs encode their own excision and integration and use the conjugation machinery of unrelated co-resident conjugative element for their own transfer. Recent studies revealed a much more complex and much more diverse lifecycle than initially thought. Besides their main transmission as integrated elements, IMEs probably use plasmid-like strategies to ensure their maintenance after excision. Their interaction with conjugative elements reveals not only harmless hitchhikers but also hunters that use conjugative elements as target for their integration or harmful parasites that subvert the conjugative apparatus of incoming elements to invade cells that harbor them. IMEs carry genes conferring various functions, such as resistance to antibiotics, that can enhance the fitness of their hosts and that contribute to their maintenance in bacterial populations. Taken as a whole, IMEs are probably major contributors to bacterial evolution.
Keywords: antibiotic resistance; conjugation; gene transfer; integrative mobilizable element; mobile genomic island; mobilizable transposon; mobilization.