Data Dialogue: The persistence potential of mobile genetic elements
Mobile genetic elements (MGEs), such as plasmids, phages, and transposons, play a critical role in mediating the transfer and maintenance of diverse traits and functions in microbial communities. This role depends on the ability of MGEs to persist. For a community consisting of multiple populations transferring multiple MGEs, however, the conditions underlying the persistence of these MGEs are poorly understood. Computationally, this difficulty arises from the combinatory explosion associated with describing the gene flow in a complex community using the conventional modeling framework. Here, we describe an MGE-centric framework that makes it computationally feasible to analyze such transfer dynamics. Using this framework, we derive a general, heuristic metric that predicts the persistence and abundance of any MGEs. We call this metric the persistence potential. We validate the metric by using engineered microbial consortia transferring mobilizable plasmids, and by the quantitative data available in the literature. Our modeling framework and the resulting metric have implications for developing quantitative understanding of natural microbial communities and for guiding the engineering of microbial consortia utilizing gene transfer.