Plasmid Interactions Can Improve Plasmid Persistence in Bacterial Populations
It is difficult to understand plasmid maintenance in the absence of selection and theoretical models predict the conditions for plasmid persistence to be limited. Plasmid-associated fitness costs decrease bacterial competitivity, while imperfect partition allows the emergence of plasmid-free cells during cell division. Although plasmid conjugative transfer allows mobility into plasmid-free cells, the rate of such events is generally not high enough to ensure plasmid persistence. Experimental data suggest several factors that may expand the conditions favorable for plasmid maintenance, such as compensatory mutations and accessory genes that allow positive selection. Most of the previous studies focus on bacteria that carry a single plasmid. However, there is increasing evidence that multiple plasmids inhabit the same bacterial population and that interactions between them affect their transmission and persistence. Here, we adapt previous mathematical models to include multiple plasmids and perform computer simulations to study how interactions among them affect plasmid maintenance. We tested the contribution of different plasmid interaction parameters that impact three biological features: host fitness, conjugative transfer and plasmid loss – which affect plasmid persistence. The interaction affecting conjugation was studied in the contexts of intracellular and intercellular interactions, i.e., the plasmids interact when present in the same cell or when in different cells, respectively. First, we tested the effect of each type of interaction alone and concluded that only interactions affecting fitness (epistasis) prevented plasmid extinction. Although not allowing plasmid maintenance, intracellular interactions increasing conjugative efficiencies had a more determinant impact in delaying extinction than the remaining parameters. Then, we allowed multiple interactions between plasmids and concluded that, in a few cases, a combined effect of (intracellular) interactions increasing conjugation and fitness lead to plasmid maintenance. Our results show a hierarchy among these interaction parameters. Those affecting fitness favor plasmid persistence more than those affecting conjugative transfer and lastly plasmid loss. These results suggest that interactions between different plasmids can favor their persistence in bacterial communities.