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Integrons are genetic elements that promote rapid adaptation in bacteria by capturing exogenous, mobile gene cassettes. Recently, a subset of gene cassettes has facilitated the global spread of antibiotic resistance. However, outside clinical settings, very little is known about their diversity and spatial ecology. To address this question, we sequenced integron gene cassettes from soils sampled across Australia and Antarctica. We recovered 44 970 open reading frames that encoded 27 215 unique proteins, representing an order of magnitude more cassettes than previous sequencing efforts. We found that cassettes have extremely high local richness, significantly greater than previously predicted, with estimates ranging from 4000 to 18 000 unique cassettes per 0.3 g of soil. We show that cassettes have a heterogeneous distribution across space, and that they exhibit rapid turnover with distance. Similarity between samples drops to between 0.1% and 10% at distances of as little as 100 m. Together, these data provide key insights into the ecology and size of the gene cassette metagenome.
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