Mobile genetic elements (MGEs) drive bacterial evolution, alter gene availability within microbial communities, and facilitate adaptation to ecological niches. In natural systems, bacteria simultaneously possess or encounter multiple MGEs, yet their combined influences on microbial communities are poorly understood. Here, we investigate interactions among MGEs in the marine bacterium Sulfitobacter pontiacus. Two related strains, CB-D and CB-A, each harbor a single prophage. These prophages share high sequence identity with one another and an integration site within the host genome, yet these strains exhibit differences in “spontaneous” prophage induction (SPI) and consequent fitness. To better understand mechanisms underlying variation in SPI between these lysogens, we closed their genomes, which revealed that in addition to harboring different prophage genotypes, CB-A lacks two of the four large, low-copy-number plasmids possessed by CB-D. To assess the relative roles of plasmid content versus prophage genotype on host physiology, a panel of derivative strains varying in MGE content were generated. Characterization of these derivatives revealed a robust link between plasmid content and SPI, regardless of prophage genotype. Strains possessing all four plasmids had undetectable phage in cell-free lysates, while strains lacking either one plasmid (pSpoCB-1) or a combination of two plasmids (pSpoCB-2 and pSpoCB-4) produced high (.105 PFU/mL) phage titers. Homologous plasmid sequences were identified in related bacteria, and plasmid and phage genes were found to be widespread in Tara Oceans metagenomic data sets. This suggests that plasmid-dependent stabilization of prophages may be commonplace throughout the oceans. IMPORTANCE The consequences of prophage induction on the physiology of microbial populations are varied and include enhanced biofilm formation, conferral of virulence, and increased opportunity for horizontal gene transfer. These traits lead to competitive advantages for lysogenized bacteria and influence bacterial lifestyles in a variety of niches. However, biological controls of “spontaneous” prophage induction, the initiation of phage replication and phage-mediated cell lysis without an overt stressor, are not well understood. In this study, we observed a novel interaction between plasmids and prophages in the marine bacterium Sulfitobacter pontiacus. We found that loss of one or more distinct plasmids—which we show carry genes ubiquitous in the world’s oceans—resulted in a marked increase in prophage induction within lysogenized strains. These results demonstrate cross talk between different mobile genetic elements and have implications for our understanding of the lysogenic-lytic switches of prophages found not only in marine environments, but throughout all ecosystems.
- lysogenic-lytic switch
- mobile genetic elements
- spontaneous prophage induction
- temperate phages