Many bacteria can ‘have sex’ – that is, they can share their genetic information and trade off segments of DNA. While these mobile genetic elements can be parasites that use the resources of their host to make more of themselves, some carry useful genes which, for example, help bacteria to fight off antibiotics.
Integrative and conjugative elements (or ICEs) are a type of mobile segments that normally stay inside the genetic information of their bacterial host but can sometimes replicate and be pumped out to another cell. ICEBs1 for instance, is an element found in the common soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis. Scientists know that ICEBs1 can rapidly spread in biofilms – the slimly, crowded communities where bacteria live tightly connected – but it is still unclear whether it helps or hinders its hosts.
Using genetic manipulations and tracking the survival of different groups of cells, Jones et al. show that carrying ICEBs1 confers an advantage under many conditions. When B. subtilis forms biofilms, the presence of the devI gene in ICEBs1 helps the cells to delay the production of the costly mucus that keeps bacteria together, allowing the organisms to ‘cheat’ for a little while and benefit from the tight-knit community without contributing to it. As nutrients become scarce in biofilms, the gene also allows the bacteria to grow for longer before they start to form spores – the dormant bacterial form that can weather difficult conditions.
Mobile elements can carry genes that make bacteria resistant to antibiotics, harmful to humans, or able to use new food sources; they could even be used to artificially introduce genes of interest in these cells. The work by Jones et al. helps to understand the way these elements influence the fate of their host, providing insight into how they could be harnessed for the benefit of human health.