Plasmids are circular double stranded DNA molecules that are separate from the chromosomal DNA (Fig. 1). They usually occur in bacteria, sometimes in eukaryotic organisms (e.g., the 2-micron-ring in Saccharomyces cerevisiae). Their size varies from 1 to 250 kbp kilo base pairs. There are from one copy, for large plasmids, to hundreds of copies of the same plasmid present in a single cell.
|Figure 1 : Schematic drawing of a bacterium with plasmids enclosed. (1) Chromosomal DNA. (2) Plasmids.|
Plasmids usually contain one or two genes that confer a selective advantage to the bacterium harboring them, e.g., the ability to build an antibiotic resistance. Every plasmid contains at least one DNA sequence that serves as an origin of replication or ori (a starting point for DNA replication), which enables the plasmid DNA to be duplicated independently from the chromosomal DNA (Fig. 2).
|Figure 2 : Schematic drawing of a plasmid with antibiotic resistances (1&2) and an ori(3).|
Episomes are plasmids that can integrate themselves into the chromosomal DNA of the host organism (Fig. 3). For this reason, they can stay intact for a long time, be duplicated with every cell division of the host, and become a basic part of its genetic makeup.
|Figure 3 : Comparison of non-integrating plasmids (top) and episomes (bottom).
There are two basic groups of plasmids, conjugative and non-conjugative. Conjugative plasmids contain a so-called tra-gene, which can initiate conjugation, the sexual exchange of plasmids, with another bacterium (Fig. 4). Non-conjugative plasmids are incapable of initiating conjugation, and therefore, their movement to another bacterium, but they can be transferred together with conjugative plasmids, during conjugation.
|Figure 4 : Schematic drawing of bacterial conjugation.
Several different types of plasmids can coexist in a single cell, e.g., up to seven in E. coli. Two plasmids can be incompatible, resulting in the destruction of one of them. Therefore, plasmids can be assigned into incompatibility groups, depending on their ability to coexist in a single cell.
An obvious way of classifying plasmids is by function. There are five main classes:
- Fertility-(F-)plasmids, which contain only tra-genes. Their only function is to initiate conjugation.
- Resistance-(R-)plasmids, which contain genes that can build a resistance against antibiotics or poisons.
- Col-plasmids, which contain genes that code for (determine the production of) colicines, proteins that can kill other bacteria.
- Degrative plasmids, which enable the digestion of unusual substances, e.g., toluole or salicylic acid.
- Virulence plasmids, which turn the bacterium into a pathogen.
Plasmids serve as important tools in genetics and biochemistry labs, where they are commonly used to multiply (make many copies of) or express particular genes. There are many plasmids that are commercially available for such uses. Initially, the gene to be replicated is inserted in a plasmid . These plasmids contain, in addition to the inserted gene, one or more genes capable of providing antibiotic resistance to the bacteria that harbors them. The plasmids are next inserted into bacteria by a process called transformation, which are then grown on specific antibiotic(s). Bacteria which took up one or more copies of the plasmid then express (make protein) the gene that confers antibiotic resistance. This is typically a protein which can break down any antibiotics that would otherwise kill the cell. As a result, only the bacteria with antibiotic resistance can survive, the very same bacteria containing the genes to be replicated. The antibiotic(s) will, however, kill those bacteria that did not receive a plasmid, because they have no antibiotic resistance genes. In this way the antibiotic(s) acts as a filter selecting out only the modified bacteria. Now these bacteria can be grown in large amounts, harvested and lysed to isolate the plasmid of interest. Another major use of plasmids is to make large amounts of proteins. In this case you grow the bacteria containing a plasmid harboring the gene of interest. Just as the bacteria produces proteins to confer its antibiotic resistence, it can also be induced to produce large amounts of proteins from the inserted gene. This is a cheap and easy way of mass-producing a gene or the protein it then that codes for--for example, insulin or even antibiotics.