CRISPR-Cas systems provide adaptive immunity against mobile genetic elements, but employment of this resistance mechanism is often reported with a fitness cost for the host. Whether or not CRISPR-Cas systems are important barriers for the horizontal spread of conjugative plasmids, which play a crucial role in the spread of antibiotic resistance, will depend on the fitness costs of employing CRISPR-based defences and the benefits of resisting conjugative plasmids. To estimate these costs and benefits we measured bacterial fitness associated with plasmid immunity using Escherichia coli and the conjugative plasmid pOX38-Cm. We find that CRISPR-mediated immunity fails to confer a fitness benefit in the absence of antibiotics, despite the large fitness cost associated with carrying the plasmid in this context. Similar to many other conjugative plasmids, pOX38-Cm carries a CcdAB toxin-anti-toxin (TA) addiction system. These addiction systems encode long-lived toxins and short-lived anti-toxins, resulting in toxic effects following the loss of the TA genes from the bacterial host. Our data suggest that the lack of a fitness benefit associated with CRISPR-mediated defence is due to expression of the TA system before plasmid detection and degradation. As most antibiotic resistance plasmids encode TA systems this could have important consequences for the role of CRISPR-Cas systems in limiting the spread of antibiotic resistance.
- adaptive immunity