Staphylococcal phages and pathogenicity islands drive plasmid evolution

Suzanne Humphrey, Álvaro San Millán, Macarena Toll-Riera, John Connolly, Alejandra Flor-Duro, John Chen, Carles Ubeda, R. Craig MacLean, José R. Penadés*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)
6 Downloads (Pure)


Conjugation has classically been considered the main mechanism driving plasmid transfer in nature. Yet bacteria frequently carry so-called non-transmissible plasmids, raising questions about how these plasmids spread. Interestingly, the size of many mobilisable and non-transmissible plasmids coincides with the average size of phages (~40 kb) or that of a family of pathogenicity islands, the phage-inducible chromosomal islands (PICIs, ~11 kb). Here, we show that phages and PICIs from Staphylococcus aureus can mediate intra- and inter-species plasmid transfer via generalised transduction, potentially contributing to non-transmissible plasmid spread in nature. Further, staphylococcal PICIs enhance plasmid packaging efficiency, and phages and PICIs exert selective pressures on plasmids via the physical capacity of their capsids, explaining the bimodal size distribution observed for non-conjugative plasmids. Our results highlight that transducing agents (phages, PICIs) have important roles in bacterial plasmid evolution and, potentially, in antimicrobial resistance transmission.
Original languageEnglish
Article number5845
Number of pages15
JournalNature Communications
Publication statusPublished - 6 Oct 2021


  • bacterial evolution
  • bacterial genetics
  • bacteriophages
  • pathogens


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