The prevalence and diversity of mobile genetic elements in bacterial communities of different environmental habitats: insights gained from different methodological approaches
The pool of mobile genetic elements (MGE) in microbial communities consists of plasmids, bacteriophages and other elements that are either self-transmissible or use mobile plasmids and phages as vehicles for their dissemination. By facilitating horizontal gene exchange, the horizontal gene pool (HGP) promotes the evolution and adaptation of microbial communities. Efforts to characterise MGE from bacterial populations resident in a variety of ecological habitats have revealed a surprisingly vast and seemingly untapped diversity. MGE, conferring such selectable traits as mercury or antibiotic resistance and degradative functions, have been readily acquired from diverse microbial communities. To circumvent the need to isolate microbial hosts, polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based detection methods have frequently been used to assess the prevalence of MGE-specific sequences resident in the 'microbial community' HGP. As studies continue to reveal novel and distinct MGE, sequencing of newly isolated MGE from diverse habitats is essential for the continued development of DNA probes, PCR primers as well as for gene array and proteomics-based approaches. This minireview highlights insight gained from different methodological approaches, biased albeit largely toward plasmids in Gram-negative bacteria, used to study the HGP of naturally occurring microbial communities from various aquatic and terrestrial habitats.