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Mechanisms and consequences of horizontal gene transfer in cell wall-deficient cells of Kitasatospora viridifaciens

The bacterial cell wall is a nearly universal structure that offers protection and gives the cell its shape. However, environmental stressors, such as cell wall-targeting antibiotics and hyperosmotic conditions, can induce bacteria to shift to a wall-deficient state. It is unknown whether the lack of this cell wall ‘barrier’ can enable DNA exchange via horizontal gene transfer (HGT), a process that facilitates the spread of antibiotic resistance amongst bacteria.

R. Kapteijn
31 January 2024
Thesis in Leiden Repository

The research in this thesis confirms that wall-deficiency enables HGT in the actinobacterium Kitasatospora viridifaciens. Specifically, we show that wall-deficient L-forms take up extracellular material including DNA, sugar polymers and lipid nanoparticles via an endocytosis-like mechanism, which in case of DNA uptake leads to genetic transformation. Moreover, wall-less cells exchange genomic DNA in a DNAse-resistant manner, most likely via cell-cell fusion and/or production of extracellular vesicles. We also isolated vesicle-producing actinobacteria from a wastewater treatment plant, an environment that is considered a hotspot for the spread of antibiotic resistance genes. Lastly, growth of K. viridifaciens under hyperosmotic stress conditions leads to genetic instability, which together with HGT can contribute to enhanced genome plasticity. In summary, this thesis provides important insights into the consequences of bacterial cell wall-deficiency for HGT and evolution.

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