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Plasmids mediate the horizontal transmission of genetic information between bacteria, facilitating their adaptation to multiple environmental conditions. An especially important example of the ability of plasmids to catalyze bacterial adaptation and evolution is their instrumental role in the global spread of antibiotic resistance, which constitutes a major threat to public health. Plasmids provide bacteria with new adaptive tools, but they also entail a metabolic burden that, in the absence of selection for plasmid-encoded traits, reduces the competitiveness of the plasmid-carrying clone. Although this fitness reduction can be alleviated over time through compensatory evolution, the initial cost associated with plasmid carriage is the main constraint on the vertical and horizontal replication of these genetic elements. The fitness effects of plasmids therefore have a crucial influence on their ability to associate with new bacterial hosts and consequently on the evolution of plasmid-mediated antibiotic resistance. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying plasmid fitness cost remain poorly understood. Here, we analyze the literature in the field and examine the potential fitness effects produced by plasmids throughout their life cycle in the host bacterium. We also explore the various mechanisms evolved by plasmids and bacteria to minimize the cost entailed by these mobile genetic elements. Finally, we discuss potential future research directions in the field.

Original publication




Journal article


Microbiol Spectr

Publication Date





Adaptation, Physiological, Bacteria, Bacterial Physiological Phenomena, Biological Evolution, Gene Transfer, Horizontal, Plasmids