An individual-based approach to explain plasmid invasion in bacterial populations


  • Editor: Julian Marchesi

Correspondence: Barth F. Smets, Department of Environmental Engineering, Technical University of Denmark, Lyngby, DK 2800, Denmark. Tel.: +45 45 25 16 00; fax: +45 45 93 28 50; e-mail:


We present an individual-based experimental framework to identify and estimate the main parameters governing bacterial conjugation at the individual cell scale. From this analysis, we have established that transient periods of unregulated plasmid transfer within newly formed transconjugant cells, together with contact mechanics arising from cellular growth and division, are the two main processes determining the emergent inability of the pWW0 TOL plasmid to fully invade spatially structured Pseudomonas putida populations. We have also shown that pWW0 conjugation occurs mainly at advanced stages of the growth cycle and that nongrowing cells, even when exposed to high nutrient concentrations, do not display conjugal activity. These results do not support previous hypotheses relating conjugation decay in the deeper cell layers of bacterial biofilms to nutrient depletion and low physiological activity. We observe, however, that transient periods of elevated plasmid transfer in newly formed transconjugant cells are offset by unfavorable cell-to-cell contact mechanics, which ultimately precludes the pWWO TOL plasmid from fully invading tightly packed multicellular P. putida populations such as microcolonies and biofilms.