The natural history of integrons

Timothy Ghaly, Michael R. Gillings, Anahit Penesyan, Qin Qi, Vaheesan Rajabal, Sasha G. Tetu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Integrons were first identified because of their central role in assembling and disseminating antibiotic resistance genes in commensal and pathogenic bacteria. However, these clinically relevant integrons represent only a small proportion of integron diversity. Integrons are now known to be ancient genetic elements that are hotspots for genomic diversity, helping to generate adaptive phenotypes. This perspective examines the diversity, functions, and activities of integrons within both natural and clinical environments. We show how the fundamental properties of integrons exquisitely pre-adapted them to respond to the selection pressures imposed by the human use of antimicrobial compounds. We then follow the extraordinary increase in abundance of one class of integrons (class 1) that has resulted from its acquisition by multiple mobile genetic elements, and subsequent colonisation of diverse bacterial species, and a wide range of animal hosts. Consequently, this class of integrons has become a significant pollutant in its own right, to the extent that it can now be detected in most ecosystems. As human activities continue to drive environmental instability, integrons will likely continue to play key roles in bacterial adaptation in both natural and clinical settings. Understanding the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of integrons can help us predict and shape these outcomes that have direct relevance to human and ecosystem health.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2021


  • Evolution
  • Metagenome
  • Antibiotic resistance
  • Lateral gene transfer
  • Anthropocene
  • Resistome


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