Evolution of class 1 integrons: Mobilization and dispersal via food-borne bacteria

Timothy M. Ghaly*, Louise Chow, Amy J. Asher, Liette S. Waldron, Michael R. Gillings

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    46 Citations (Scopus)
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    Class 1 integrons have played a major role in the global dissemination of antibiotic resistance. Reconstructing the history of class 1 integrons might help us control further spread of antibiotic resistance by understanding how human activities influence microbial evolution. Here we describe a class 1 integron that represents an intermediate stage in the evolutionary history of clinical integrons. It was embedded in a series of nested transposons, carried on an IncP plasmid resident in Enterobacter, isolated from the surface of baby spinach leaves. Based on the structure of this integron, we present a modified hypothesis for integron assembly, where the ancestral clinical class 1 integron was captured from a betaproteobacterial chromosome to form a Tn402-like transposon. This transposon then inserted into a plasmid-borne Tn21-like ancestor while in an environmental setting, possibly a bacterium resident in the phyllosphere. We suggest that the qacE gene cassette, conferring resistance to biocides, together with the mercury resistance operon carried by Tn21, provided a selective advantage when this bacterium made its way into the human commensal flora via food. The integron characterized here was located in Tn6007, which along with Tn6008, forms part of the larger Tn6006 transposon, itself inserted into another transposable element to form the Tn21-like transposon, Tn6005. This element has previously been described from the human microbiota, but with a promoter mutation that upregulates integron cassette expression. This element we describe here is from an environmental bacterium, and supports the hypothesis that the ancestral class 1 integron migrated into anthropogenic settings via foodstuffs. Selection pressures brought about by early antimicrobial agents, including mercury, arsenic and disinfectants, promoted its initial fixation, the acquisition of promoter mutations, and subsequent dissemination into various species and pathogens.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article numbere0179169
    Pages (from-to)1-11
    Number of pages11
    JournalPLoS ONE
    Issue number6
    Publication statusPublished - 6 Jun 2017


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