Co-opting bacterial viruses for DNA exchange: structure and regulation of gene transfer agents.

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Horizontal gene transfer occurs via a range of mechanisms, including transformation, conjugation and bacteriophage transduction. Gene transfer agents (GTAs) are an alternative, less-studied route for interbacterial DNA exchange. Encoded within bacterial or archaeal genomes, GTAs assemble into phage-like particles that selflessly package and transmit host DNA to recipient bacteria. Several unique features distinguish GTAs from canonical phages such as an inability to self-replicate, thus producing non-infectious particles. GTAs are also deeply integrated into the physiology of the host cell and are maintained under tight host-regulatory control. Recent advances in understanding the structure and regulation of GTAs have provided further insights into a DNA transfer mechanism that is proving increasingly widespread across the bacterial tree of life.