Inter- and intraspecies horizontal gene transfer enabled by bacterial secretion systems is a powerful mechanism for bacterial genome plasticity. The type IV secretion system of Escherichia coli, encoded by the F plasmid, enables cell-to-cell contact and subsequent DNA transfer known as conjugation. Conjugation is compromised by phage infection that specifically targets the secretion machinery. Hence, the use of phages to regulate the spread of genes, such as acquired antibiotic resistance or as general biosanitation agents, has gained interest. To predict the potential efficacy, the competition kinetics must first be understood. Using quantitative PCR to enumerate genomic loci in a resource-limited batch culture, we quantify the infection kinetics of the nonlytic phage M13 and its impact on conjugation in the absence of selection pressure (isogenic set). Modeling the resulting experimental data reveals the cellular growth rate to be reduced to 60% upon phage infection. We also find a maximum phage infection rate of 3×10−11 mL phage−1 min−1 which is only 1 order of magnitude slower than the maximum conjugation rate (3×10−10 mL cell−1 min−1), suggesting phages must be in significant abundance to be effective antagonists to horizontal gene transfer. In the regime where the number of susceptible cells (F+) and phages are equal upon initial infection, we observe the spread of the conjugative plasmid throughout the cell population despite phage infection, but only at 10% of the uninfected rate. This has interesting evolutionary implications, as even in the absence of selection pressure, cells maintain the ability to conjugate despite phage vulnerability and the associated growth consequences.
Wan, Z. & Goddard, N. L. (2012). Competition Between Conjugation and M13 Phage Infection in Escherichia coli in the Absence of Selection Pressure: A Kinetic Study. G3: Genes|Genomes|Genetics, 2(10), 1137-1144. doi:10.1534/g3.112.003418.