A plasmid is a small DNA molecule that is physically separate from, and can replicate independently of, chromosomal DNA within a cell. Most commonly found as small circular, double-stranded DNA molecules in bacteria, plasmids are sometimes present in archaea and eukaryotic organisms. In nature, plasmids carry genes that may benefit survival of the organism (e.g. antibiotic resistance), and can frequently be transmitted from one bacterium to another (even of another species) via horizontal gene transfer. Artificial plasmids are widely used as vectors in molecular cloning, serving to drive the replication of recombinant DNA sequences within host organisms.
Plasmid sizes vary from 1 to over 1,000 kbp. The number of identical plasmids in a single cell can range anywhere from one to thousands under some circumstances. Plasmids can be considered part of the mobilome because they are often associated with conjugation, a mechanism of horizontal gene transfer.
The term plasmid was first introduced by the American molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg in 1952.
Plasmids are considered replicons, capable of replicating autonomously within a suitable host. Plasmids can be found in all three major domains: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. Similar to viruses, plasmids are not considered by some to be a form of life. Unlike viruses, plasmids are naked DNA and do not encode genes necessary to encase the genetic material for transfer to a new host, though some classes of plasmids encode the sex pilus necessary for their own transfer. Plasmid host-to-host transfer requires direct mechanical transfer by conjugation, or changes in incipient host gene expression allowing the intentional uptake of the genetic element by transformation. Microbial transformation with plasmid DNA is neither parasitic nor symbiotic in nature, because each implies the presence of an independent species living in a commensal or detrimental state with the host organism. Rather, plasmids provide a mechanism for horizontal gene transfer within a population of microbes and typically provide a selective advantage under a given environmental state. Plasmids may carry genes that provide resistance to naturally occurring antibiotics in a competitive environmental niche, or the proteins produced may act as toxins under similar circumstances. Plasmids can also provide bacteria with the ability to fix nitrogen or to degrade recalcitrant organic compounds that provide an advantage when nutrients are scarce.