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Keywords:

  • Horizontal transfer;
  • insertion sequence;
  • plasmid;
  • ACLAME;
  • viruses

The distribution, dynamics, and evolution of insertion sequences (IS), the most frequent class of prokaryotic transposable elements, are conditioned by their ability to horizontally transfer between cells. IS horizontal transfer (HT) requires shuttling by other mobile genetic elements. It is widely assumed in the literature that these vectors are phages and plasmids. By examining the relative abundance of IS in 454 plasmid and 446 phage genomes, we found that IS are very frequent in plasmids but, surprisingly, very rare in phages. Our results indicate that IS rarity in phages reflects very strong and efficient postinsertional purifying selection, mainly caused by a higher density of deleterious insertion sites in phages compared to plasmids. As they do not tolerate IS insertions, we conclude that phages may be rather poor vectors of IS HT in prokaryotes, in sharp contrast with the conventional view.