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1.  Chromosomal Transfers in Mycoplasmas: When Minimal Genomes Go Mobile 
mBio  2014;5(6):e01958-14.
Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is a main driving force of bacterial evolution and innovation. This phenomenon was long thought to be marginal in mycoplasmas, a large group of self-replicating bacteria characterized by minute genomes as a result of successive gene losses during evolution. Recent comparative genomic analyses challenged this paradigm, but the occurrence of chromosomal exchanges had never been formally addressed in mycoplasmas. Here, we demonstrated the conjugal transfer of large chromosomal regions within and among ruminant mycoplasma species, with the incorporation of the incoming DNA occurring by homologous recombination into the recipient chromosome. By combining classical mating experiments with high-throughput next-generation sequencing, we documented the transfer of almost every position of the mycoplasma chromosome. Mycoplasma conjugation relies on the occurrence of an integrative conjugative element (ICE) in at least one parent cell. While ICE propagates horizontally from ICE-positive to ICE-negative cells, chromosomal transfers (CTs) occurred in the opposite direction, from ICE-negative to ICE-positive cells, independently of ICE movement. These findings challenged the classical mechanisms proposed for other bacteria in which conjugative CTs are driven by conjugative elements, bringing into the spotlight a new means for rapid mycoplasma innovation. Overall, they radically change our current views concerning the evolution of mycoplasmas, with particularly far-reaching implications given that over 50 species are human or animal pathogens.
Horizontal gene transfers (HGT) shape bacterial genomes and are key contributors to microbial diversity and innovation. One main mechanism involves conjugation, a process that allows the simultaneous transfer of significant amounts of DNA upon cell-to-cell contact. Recognizing and deciphering conjugal mechanisms are thus essential in understanding the impact of gene flux on bacterial evolution. We addressed this issue in mycoplasmas, the smallest and simplest self-replicating bacteria. In these organisms, HGT was long thought to be marginal. We showed here that nearly every position of the Mycoplasma agalactiae chromosome could be transferred via conjugation, using an unconventional mechanism. The transfer involved DNA blocks containing up to 80 genes that were incorporated into the host chromosome by homologous recombination. These findings radically change our views concerning mycoplasma evolution and adaptation with particularly far-reaching implications given that over 50 species are human or animal pathogens.
PMCID: PMC4251992  PMID: 25425234
2.  Experimental Infections with Mycoplasma agalactiae Identify Key Factors Involved in Host-Colonization 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(4):e93970.
Mechanisms underlying pathogenic processes in mycoplasma infections are poorly understood, mainly because of limited sequence similarities with classical, bacterial virulence factors. Recently, large-scale transposon mutagenesis in the ruminant pathogen Mycoplasma agalactiae identified the NIF locus, including nifS and nifU, as essential for mycoplasma growth in cell culture, while dispensable in axenic media. To evaluate the importance of this locus in vivo, the infectivity of two knock-out mutants was tested upon experimental infection in the natural host. In this model, the parental PG2 strain was able to establish a systemic infection in lactating ewes, colonizing various body sites such as lymph nodes and the mammary gland, even when inoculated at low doses. In these PG2-infected ewes, we observed over the course of infection (i) the development of a specific antibody response and (ii) dynamic changes in expression of M. agalactiae surface variable proteins (Vpma), with multiple Vpma profiles co-existing in the same animal. In contrast and despite a sensitive model, none of the knock-out mutants were able to survive and colonize the host. The extreme avirulent phenotype of the two mutants was further supported by the absence of an IgG response in inoculated animals. The exact role of the NIF locus remains to be elucidated but these data demonstrate that it plays a key role in the infectious process of M. agalactiae and most likely of other pathogenic mycoplasma species as many carry closely related homologs.
PMCID: PMC3974822  PMID: 24699671
3.  Genome-Scale Analysis of Mycoplasma agalactiae Loci Involved in Interaction with Host Cells 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(9):e25291.
Mycoplasma agalactiae is an important pathogen of small ruminants, in which it causes contagious agalactia. It belongs to a large group of “minimal bacteria” with a small genome and reduced metabolic capacities that are dependent on their host for nutrients. Mycoplasma survival thus relies on intimate contact with host cells, but little is known about the factors involved in these interactions or in the more general infectious process. To address this issue, an assay based on goat epithelial and fibroblastic cells was used to screen a M. agalactiae knockout mutant library. Mutants with reduced growth capacities in cell culture were selected and 62 genomic loci were identified as contributing to this phenotype. As expected for minimal bacteria, “transport and metabolism” was the functional category most commonly implicated in this phenotype, but 50% of the selected mutants were disrupted in coding sequences (CDSs) with unknown functions, with surface lipoproteins being most commonly represented in this category. Since mycoplasmas lack a cell wall, lipoproteins are likely to be important in interactions with the host. A few intergenic regions were also identified that may act as regulatory sequences under co-culture conditions. Interestingly, some mutants mapped to gene clusters that are highly conserved across mycoplasma species but located in different positions. One of these clusters was found in a transcriptionally active region of the M. agalactiae chromosome, downstream of a cryptic promoter. A possible scenario for the evolution of these loci is discussed. Finally, several CDSs identified here are conserved in other important pathogenic mycoplasmas, and some were involved in horizontal gene transfer with phylogenetically distant species. These results provide a basis for further deciphering functions mediating mycoplasma-host interactions.
PMCID: PMC3179502  PMID: 21966487
4.  Critical Role of Dispensable Genes in Mycoplasma agalactiae Interaction with Mammalian Cells▿  
Infection and Immunity  2010;78(4):1542-1551.
Mycoplasmas are minimal bacteria whose genomes barely exceed the smallest amount of information required to sustain autonomous life. Despite this apparent simplicity, several mycoplasmas are successful pathogens of humans and animals, in which they establish intimate interactions with epithelial cells at mucosal surfaces. To identify biological functions mediating mycoplasma interactions with mammalian cells, we produced a library of transposon knockout mutants in the ruminant pathogen Mycoplasma agalactiae and used this library to identify mutants displaying a growth-deficient pheonotype in cell culture. M. agalactiae mutants displaying a 3-fold reduction in CFU titers to nearly complete extinction in coculture with HeLa cells were identified. Mapping of transposon insertion sites revealed 18 genomic regions putatively involved in the interaction of M. agalactiae with HeLa cells. Several of these regions encode proteins with features of membrane lipoproteins and/or were involved in horizontal gene transfer with phylogenetically distant pathogenic mycoplasmas of ruminants. Two mutants with the most extreme phenotype carry a transposon in a genomic region designated the NIF locus which encodes homologues of SufS and SufU, two proteins presumably involved in [Fe-S] cluster biosynthesis in Gram-positive bacteria. Complementation studies confirmed the conditional essentiality of the NIF locus, which was found to be critical for proliferation in the presence of HeLa cells and several other mammalian cell lines but dispensable for axenic growth. While our results raised questions regarding essential functions in mycoplasmas, they also provide a means for studying the role of mycoplasmas as minimal pathogens.
PMCID: PMC2849427  PMID: 20123713

Results 1-4 (4)