• biodegradation;
  • replication initiation (Rep) proteins;
  • incompatibility groups;
  • conjugation


Large plasmids (‘megaplasmids’) are commonly found in members of the Alphaproteobacterial family Sphingomonadaceae (‘sphingomonads’). These plasmids contribute to the extraordinary catabolic flexibility of this group of organisms, which degrade a broad range of recalcitrant xenobiotic compounds. The genomes of several sphingomonads have been sequenced during the last years. In the course of these studies, also the sequences of several plasmids have been determined. The analysis of the published information and the sequences deposited in the public databases allowed a first classification of these plasmids into a restricted number of groups according to the proteins involved in the initiation of replication, plasmid partition and conjugation. The sequence comparisons demonstrated that the plasmids from sphingomonads encode for four main groups of replication initiation (Rep) proteins. These Rep proteins belong to the protein superfamilies RepA_C (Pfam 04796), Rep_3 (Pfam 01051), RPA (Pfam 10134) and HTH-36 (Pfam 13730). The ‘degradative megaplasmids’ pNL2, pCAR3, pSWIT02, pCHQ1, pISP0, and pISP1, which code for genes involved in the degradation of aromatic hydrocarbons, carbazole, dibenzo-p-dioxin and γ-hexachlorocyclohexane, carry Rep proteins which either belong to the RepA_C- (plasmids pNL2, pCAR3, pSWIT02), Rep-3- (plasmids pCHQ1, pISP0) or RPA-superfamily (pISP1). The classification of these ‘degradative megaplasmids’ into three groups is also supported by sequence comparisons of the proteins involved in plasmid partition (ParAB) and the organization of the three genes on the respective plasmids. All analysed ‘degradative megaplasmids’ carry genes, which might allow a conjugative transfer of the plasmids. Sequence comparisons of these genes suggest the presence of at least two types of transfer functions, which either are closer related to the tra- or vir-genes previously described for plasmids from other sources.