Microbes engage in a remarkable array of cooperative behaviors, secreting shared proteins that are essential for foraging, shelter, microbial warfare, and virulence. These proteins are costly, rendering populations of cooperators vulnerable to exploitation by nonproducing cheaters arising by gene loss or migration. In such conditions, how can cooperation persist?
Our model predicts that differential gene mobility drives intragenomic variation in investment in cooperative traits. More mobile loci generate stronger among-individual genetic correlations at these loci (higher relatedness) and thereby allow the maintenance of more cooperative traits via kin selection. By analyzing 21 Escherichia genomes, we confirm that genes coding for secreted proteins-the secretome-are very frequently lost and gained and are associated with mobile elements. We show that homologs of the secretome are overrepresented among human gut metagenomics samples, consistent with increased relatedness at secretome loci across multiple species. The biosynthetic cost of secreted proteins is shown to be under intense selective pressure, even more than for highly expressed proteins, consistent with a cost of cooperation driving social dilemmas. Finally, we demonstrate that mobile elements are in conflict with their chromosomal hosts over the chimeric ensemble's social strategy, with mobile elements enforcing cooperation on their otherwise selfish hosts via the cotransfer of secretome genes with "mafia strategy" addictive systems (toxin-antitoxin and restriction-modification).
Our analysis matches the predictions of our model suggesting that horizontal transfer promotes cooperation, as transmission increases local genetic relatedness at mobile loci and enforces cooperation on the resident genes. As a consequence, horizontal transfer promoted by agents such as plasmids, phages, or integrons drives microbial cooperation.