Bacterial conjugation is often incorrectly regarded as the bacterial equivalent of sexual reproduction or mating. It is not actually sexual, as it does not involve the fusing of gametes and the creation of a zygote, nor is there equal exchange of genetic material. It is merely the transfer of genetic information from a donor cell to a recipient. In order to perform conjugation, one of the bacteria, the donor, must play host to a conjugative or mobilizable genetic element, most often a conjugative or mobilizable plasmid or transposon. Most conjugative plasmids have systems ensuring that the recipient cell does not already contain a similar element.
The genetic information transferred is often beneficial to the recipient cell. Benefits may include antibiotic resistance, other xenobiotic tolerance, or the ability to utilize a new metabolite. Such beneficial plasmids may be considered bacterial endosymbionts. Some conjugative elements may also be viewed as genetic parasites on the bacterium, and conjugation as a mechanism was evolved by the mobile element to spread itself into new hosts.
The prototype for conjugative plasmids is the F-plasmid, also called the F-factor. The F-plasmid is an episome (a plasmid that can integrate itself into the bacterial chromosome by genetic recombination) of about 100 kb length. It carries its own origin of replication, the oriV, as well as an origin of transfer, or oriT. There can only be one copy of the F-plasmid in a given bacterium, either free or integrated (two immediately before cell division). The host bacterium is called F-positive or F-plus (denoted F+). Strains that lack F plasmids are called F-negative or F-minus (F-).
Among other genetic information, the F-plasmid carries a tra and a trb locus, which together are about 33 kb long and consist of about 40 genes. The tra locus includes the pilin gene and regulatory genes, which together form pili on the cell surface, polymeric proteins that can attach themselves to the surface of F- bacteria and initiate the conjugation. Though there is some debate on the exact mechanism, the pili themselves do not seem to be the structures through which the actual exchange of DNA takes place; rather, some proteins coded in the tra or trb loci seem to open a channel between the bacteria.
When conjugation is initiated, via a mating signal, a relaxase enzyme creates a nick in one plasmid DNA strand at the origin of transfer, or oriT. The relaxase may work alone or in a complex of over a dozen proteins, known collectively as a relaxosome. In the F-plasmid system, the relaxase enzyme is called TraI and the relaxosome consists of TraI, TraY, TraM, and the integrated host factor, IHF. The transferred, or T-strand, is unwound from the duplex plasmid and transferred into the recipient bacterium in a 5'-terminus to 3'-terminus direction. The remaining strand is replicated, either independent of conjugative action (vegetative replication, beginning at the oriV) or in concert with conjugation (conjugative replication similar to the rolling circle replication of lambda phage). Conjugative replication may necessitate a second nick before successful transfer can occur. A recent report claims to have inhibited conjugation with chemicals that mimic an intermediate step of this second nicking event.
If the F-plasmid becomes integrated into the host genome, donor chromosomal DNA may be transferred along with plasmid DNA. The certain amount of chromosomal DNA that is transferred depends on how long the bacteria remain in contact; for common laboratory strains of E. coli the transfer of the entire bacterial chromosome takes about 100 minutes. The transferred DNA can be integrated into the recipient genome via recombination.
A culture of cells containing non-integrated F plasmids usually contains a few that have accidentally become integrated, and these are responsible for those low-frequency chromosomal gene transfers which do occur in such cultures. Some strains of bacteria with an integrated F-plasmid can be isolated and grown in pure culture. Because such strains transfer chromosomal genes very efficiently, they are called Hfr (high frequency of recombination). The E. coli genome was originally mapped by interrupted mating experiments, in which various Hfr cells in the process of conjugation were sheared from recipients after less than 100 minutes (initially using a Waring blender) and investigating which genes were transferred.
The Ti and Ri plasmids are themselves conjugative. Ti and Ri transfer between bacteria uses an independent system (the tra, or transfer, operon) from that for inter-kingdom transfer (the vir, or virulence, operon). Such transfer creates virulent strains from previously avirulent Agrobacteria.