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Plasmids and phages influence bacterial phenotype and may serve as vectors for transferring genes between bacteria. In the present study, we examined 130 marine bacterioplankton isolates for the presence of plasmids and prophages. Samples were obtained in spring, summer and autumn in the Baltic Sea proper. Plasmids and inducible prophages were found in 19% and 28% of the isolates, respectively. During spring, plasmids and prophages were 41–55% and 30% more common compared to the summer and autumn measurements and prevalence varied up to five-fold between bacterial phylogenetic groups, with the highest plasmid prevalence found in Bacteriodetes (41%), and lysogeny being common in α-, β-, and γ-Proteobacteria (32–50%). Plasmid genome sizes ranged from 1.5–15 kb with most in the 2.1–4.0 kb size-range. No plasmids showed identity to the broad-host-range incompatibility groups N and P. Phage genomes ranged in size from 8–87 kb, with 57% being 35–45 kb in size. Strain typing of phages with similar genome sizes by means of DP-RAPD (degenerated primer randomly amplified polymorphic DNA) showed that all were different (except two that were not resolved). In PFGE (pulsed-field gel electrophoresis) 34% of the lysates produced multiple bands. Transmission electron microscopy suggested that these originated from several phage morphotypes indicating that polylysogeny is common. The widespread distribution of small cryptic plasmids as well as of lysogeny and polylysogeny in Baltic Sea bacterioplankton may have important implications for bacterial phenotype and for lateral gene transfer; hence, the ecological significance of these vectors in marine environments requires further study.
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