Plasmids do not consistently stabilize cooperation across bacteria but may promote broad pathogen host-range.
Dewar AE., Thomas JL., Scott TW., Wild G., Griffin AS., West SA., Ghoul M.
Horizontal gene transfer via plasmids could favour cooperation in bacteria, because transfer of a cooperative gene turns non-cooperative cheats into cooperators. This hypothesis has received support from theoretical, genomic and experimental analyses. By contrast, we show here, with a comparative analysis across 51 diverse species, that genes for extracellular proteins, which are likely to act as cooperative 'public goods', were not more likely to be carried on either: (1) plasmids compared to chromosomes; or (2) plasmids that transfer at higher rates. Our results were supported by theoretical modelling which showed that, while horizontal gene transfer can help cooperative genes initially invade a population, it has less influence on the longer-term maintenance of cooperation. Instead, we found that genes for extracellular proteins were more likely to be on plasmids when they coded for pathogenic virulence traits, in pathogenic bacteria with a broad host-range.