A plasmid is a small DNA molecule within a cell that is physically separated from chromosomal DNA and can replicate independently. They are most commonly found as small circular, double-stranded DNA molecules in bacteria; however, plasmids are sometimes present in archaea and eukaryotic organisms. In nature, plasmids often carry genes that benefit the survival of the organism, such as by providing antibiotic resistance. While the chromosomes are big and contain all the essential genetic information for living under normal conditions, plasmids usually are very small and contain only additional genes that may be useful in certain situations or conditions. Artificial plasmids are widely used as vectors in molecular cloning, serving to drive the replication of recombinant DNA sequences within host organisms. In the laboratory, plasmids may be introduced into a cell via transformation.

Plasmids almost always carry at least one gene. Many of the genes carried by a plasmid are beneficial for the host cells, for example: enabling the host cell to survive in an environment that would otherwise be lethal or restrictive for growth. Some of these genes encode traits for antibiotic resistance or resistance to heavy metal, while others may produce virulence factors that enable a bacterium to colonize a host and overcome its defences, or have specific metabolic functions that allow the bacterium to utilize a particular nutrient, including the ability to degrade recalcitrant or toxic organic compounds. Plasmids can also provide bacteria with the ability to fix nitrogen. Some plasmids, however, have no observable effect on the phenotype of the host cell or its benefit to the host cells cannot be determined, and these plasmids are called cryptic plasmids.

Plasmids can also be classified into incompatibility groups. A microbe can harbour different types of plasmids, but different plasmids can only exist in a single bacterial cell if they are compatible. If two plasmids are not compatible, one or the other will be rapidly lost from the cell. Different plasmids may therefore be assigned to different incompatibility groups depending on whether they can coexist together. Incompatible plasmids (belonging to the same incompatibility group) normally share the same replication or partition mechanisms and can thus not be kept together in a single cell.

DNA structural instability can be defined as a series of spontaneous events that culminate in an unforeseen rearrangement, loss, or gain of genetic material. Such events are frequently triggered by the transposition of mobile elements or by the presence of unstable elements such as non-canonical (non-B) structures. Accessory regions pertaining to the bacterial backbone may engage in a wide range of structural instability phenomena. Well-known catalysts of genetic instability include direct, inverted, and tandem repeats, which are known to be conspicuous in a large number of commercially available cloning and expression vectors. Insertion sequences can also severely impact plasmid function and yield, by leading to deletions and rearrangements, activation, down-regulation or inactivation of neighboring gene expression. Therefore, the reduction or complete elimination of extraneous noncoding backbone sequences would pointedly reduce the propensity for such events to take place, and consequently, the overall recombinogenic potential of the plasmid.

Another major use of plasmids is to make large amounts of proteins. In this case, researchers grow bacteria containing a plasmid harboring the gene of interest. Just as the bacterium produces proteins to confer its antibiotic resistance, 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 the protein the gene codes for, for example, insulin.

Plasmids were historically used to genetically engineer the embryonic stem cells of rats to create rat genetic disease models. The limited efficiency of plasmid-based techniques precluded their use in the creation of more accurate human cell models. However, developments in Adeno-associated virus recombination techniques, and Zinc finger nucleases, have enabled the creation of a new generation of isogenic human disease models.

Many plasmids have been created over the years and researchers have given out plasmids to plasmid databases such as the non-profit organisations Addgene and BCCM/LMBP. One can find and request plasmids from those databases for research. Researcher also often upload plasmid sequences to the NCBI database, from which sequences of specific plasmids can be retrieved.


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