Helicobacter pylori is a highly motile, microaerophilic, Gram-negative bacterium, resident in the gastric mucus layer of about 50% of the human population. Infection with H. pylori is a major cause of gastroduodenal disease, including chronic active gastritis, peptic ulcer disease, mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue lymphoma and gastric carcinoma. A remarkable feature of H. pylori is its panmictic population structure, reflected by an extreme genetic heterogeneity, possibly resulting from frequent recombination events after import of small pieces of foreign DNA from other H. pylori strains during persistent or transient mixed infections. Such an efficient DNA exchange has been attributed to the natural transformation competence of H. pylori.
Multiple Pathways of Plasmid DNA Transfer in Helicobacter pylori. (2012) PLoS ONE 7(9): e45623. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045623
Many Helicobacter pylori (Hp) strains carry cryptic plasmids of different size and gene content, the function of which is not well understood. A subgroup of these plasmids (e.g. pHel4, pHel12), contain a mobilisation region, but no cognate type IV secretion system (T4SS) for conjugative transfer. Instead, certain H. pylori strains (e.g. strain P12 carrying plasmid pHel12) can harbour up to four T4SSs in their genome (cag-T4SS, comB, tfs3, tfs4). Here, we show that such indigenous plasmids can be efficiently transferred between H. pylori strains, even in the presence of extracellular DNaseI eliminating natural transformation. Knockout of a plasmid-encoded mobA relaxase gene significantly reduced plasmid DNA transfer in the presence of DNaseI, suggesting a DNA conjugation or mobilisation process. To identify the T4SS involved in this conjugative DNA transfer, each individual T4SS was consecutively deleted from the bacterial chromosome. Using a marker-free counterselectable gene deletion procedure (rpsL counterselection method), a P12 mutant strain was finally obtained with no single T4SS (P12ΔT4SS). Mating experiments using these mutants identified the comB T4SS in the recipient strain as the major mediator of plasmid DNA transfer between H. pylori strains, both in a DNaseI-sensitive (natural transformation) as well as a DNaseI-resistant manner (conjugative transfer). However, transfer of a pHel12::cat plasmid from a P12ΔT4SS donor strain into a P12ΔT4SS recipient strain provided evidence for the existence of a third, T4SS-independent mechanism of DNA transfer. This novel type of plasmid DNA transfer, designated as alternate DNaseI-Resistant (ADR) mechanism, is observed at a rather low frequency under in vitro conditions. Taken together, our study describes for the first time the existence of three distinct pathways of plasmid DNA transfer between H. pylori underscoring the importance of horizontal gene transfer for this species.