Botulinum neurotoxin-encoding plasmids can be conjugatively transferred to diverse clostridial strains


Most Group I Clostridium botulinum strains harbor botulinum neurotoxin (bont) genes on their chromosome, while some carry these genes (including bont/a, bont/b, and bont/f) on large plasmids. Prior work in our laboratory demonstrated that Group I BoNT plasmids were mobilized to C. botulinum recipient strains containing the Tn916 transposon. Here, we show that Tn916 is nonessential for plasmid transfer. Relying on an auxotrophic donor phenotype and a plasmid-borne selectable marker, we observed the transfer of pCLJ, a 270 kb plasmid harboring two bont genes, from its host strain to various clostridia. Transfer frequency was greatest to other Group I C. botulinum strains, but the plasmid was also transferred into traditionally nontoxigenic species, namely C. sporogenes and C. butyricum. Expression and toxicity of BoNT/A4 was confirmed in transconjugants by immunoblot and mouse bioassay. These data indicate that conjugation within the genus Clostridium can occur across physiological Groups of C. botulinum, supporting horizontal gene transfer via bont-bearing plasmids. The transfer of plasmids possessing bont genes to resistant Clostridium spp. such as C. sporogenes could impact biological safety for animals and humans. These plasmids may play an environmental role in initiating death in vertebrates, leading to decomposition and nutrient recycling of animal biomass.

Scientific Reports