skip to main content


The NSF Public Access Repository (NSF-PAR) system and access will be unavailable from 5:00 PM ET until 11:00 PM ET on Friday, June 21 due to maintenance. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Title: Market forces determine the distribution of a leaky function in a simple microbial community

Many biological functions are leaky, and organisms that perform them contribute some of their products to a community “marketplace” in which nonperforming individuals may compete for them. Leaky functions are partitioned unequally in microbial communities, and the evolutionary forces determining which species perform them and which become beneficiaries are poorly understood. Here, we demonstrate that the market principle of comparative advantage determines the distribution of a leaky antibiotic resistance gene in an environment occupied by two “species”—strains ofEscherichia coligrowing on mutually exclusive resources and thus occupying separate niches. Communities comprised of antibiotic-resistant cells were rapidly invaded by sensitive cells of both types. While the two phenotypes coexisted stably for 500 generations, in 15/18 replicates, antibiotic sensitivity became fixed in one species. Fixation always occurred in the same species despite both species being genetically identical except for their niche-defining mutation. In the absence of antibiotic, the fitness cost of resistance was identical in both species. However, the intrinsic resistance of the species that ultimately became the sole helper was significantly lower, and thus its reward for expressing the resistance gene was higher. Opportunity cost of resistance, not absolute cost or efficiency of antibiotic removal, determined which species became the helper, consistent with the economic theory of comparative advantage. We present a model that suggests that this market-like dynamic is a general property of Black Queen systems and, in communities dependent on multiple leaky functions, could lead to the spontaneous development of an equitable and efficient division of labor.

more » « less
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ;
Publisher / Repository:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Page Range / eLocation ID:
Article No. e2109813118
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Pagliara, Stefano (Ed.)

    Non-genetic factors can cause significant fluctuations in gene expression levels. Regardless of growing in a stable environment, this fluctuation leads to cell-to-cell variability in an isogenic population. This phenotypic heterogeneity allows a tiny subset of bacterial cells in a population called persister cells to tolerate long-term lethal antibiotic effects by entering into a non-dividing, metabolically repressed state. We occasionally noticed a high variation in persister levels, and to explore this, we tested clonal populations starting from a single cell using a modified Luria-Delbrück fluctuation test. Although we kept the conditions same, the diversity in persistence level among clones was relatively consistent: varying from ~60- to 100- and ~40- to 70-fold for ampicillin and apramycin, respectively. Then, we divided and diluted each clone to observe whether the same clone had comparable persister levels for more than one generation. Replicates had similar persister levels even when clones were divided, diluted by 1:20, and allowed to grow for approximately five generations. This result explicitly shows a cellular memory passed on for generations and eventually lost when cells are diluted to 1:100 and regrown (>seven generations). Our result demonstrates (1) the existence of a small population prepared for stress (“primed cells”) resulting in higher persister numbers; (2) the primed memory state is reproducible and transient, passed down for generations but eventually lost; and (3) a heterogeneous persister population is a result of a transiently primed reversible cell state and not due to a pre-existing genetic mutation.


    Antibiotics have been highly effective in treating lethal infectious diseases for almost a century. However, the increasing threat of antibiotic resistance is again causing these diseases to become life-threatening. The longer a bacteria can survive antibiotics, the more likely it is to develop resistance. Complicating matters is that non-genetic factors can allow bacterial cells with identical DNA to gain transient resistance (also known as persistence). Here, we show that a small fraction of the bacterial population called primed cells can pass down non-genetic information (“memory”) to their offspring, enabling them to survive lethal antibiotics for a long time. However, this memory is eventually lost. These results demonstrate how bacteria can leverage differences among genetically identical cells formed through non-genetic factors to form primed cells with a selective advantage to survive antibiotics.

    more » « less
  2. Summary

    Arsenic is the most ubiquitous environmental toxin. Here, we demonstrate that bacteria have evolved the ability to use arsenic to gain a competitive advantage over other bacteria at least twice. Microbes generate toxic methylarsenite (MAs(III)) by methylation of arsenite (As(III)) or reduction of methylarsenate (MAs(V)). MAs(III) is oxidized aerobically to MAs(V), making methylation a detoxification process. MAs(V) is continually re‐reduced to MAs(III) by other community members, giving them a competitive advantage over sensitive bacteria. Because generation of a sustained pool of MAs(III) requires microbial communities, these complex interactions are an emergent property. We show that reduction of MAs(V) byBurkholderiasp. MR1 produces toxic MAs(III) that inhibits growth ofEscherichia coliin mixed culture. There are three microbial mechanisms for resistance to MAs(III). ArsH oxidizes MAs(III) to MAs(V). ArsI degrades MAs(III) to As(III). ArsP confers resistance by efflux. Cells ofE. coliexpressingarsI,arsHorarsPgrow in mixed culture withBurkholderiasp. MR1 in the presence of MAs(V). Thus MAs(III) has antibiotic properties: a toxic organic compound produced by one microbe to kill off competitors. Our results demonstrate that life has adapted to use environmental arsenic as a weapon in the continuing battle for dominance.

    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    Plants deploy both primary and species-specific, specialized metabolites to communicate with other organisms and adapt to environmental challenges, including interactions with soil-dwelling microbial communities. However, the role of specialized metabolites in modulating plant-microbiome interactions often remains elusive. In this study, we report that maize (Zea mays) diterpenoid metabolites with known antifungal bioactivities also influence rhizosphere bacterial communities. Metabolite profiling showed that dolabralexins, antibiotic diterpenoids that are highly abundant in roots of some maize varieties, can be exuded from the roots. Comparative 16S rRNA gene sequencing determined the bacterial community composition of the maize mutantZman2(anther ear 2), which is deficient in dolabralexins and closely related bioactive kauralexin diterpenoids. TheZman2rhizosphere microbiome differed significantly from the wild-type sibling with the most significant changes observed for Alphaproteobacteria of the order Sphingomonadales. Metabolomics analyses support that these differences are attributed to the diterpenoid deficiency of theZman2mutant, rather than other large-scale metabolome alterations. Together, these findings support physiological functions of maize diterpenoids beyond known chemical defenses, including the assembly of the rhizosphere microbiome.

    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Metagenomic surveys have revealed that natural microbial communities are predominantly composed of sequence-discrete, species-like populations but the genetic and/or ecological processes that maintain such populations remain speculative, limiting our understanding of population speciation and adaptation to perturbations. To address this knowledge gap, we sequenced 112 Salinibacter ruber isolates and 12 companion metagenomes from four adjacent saltern ponds in Mallorca, Spain that were experimentally manipulated to dramatically alter salinity and light intensity, the two major drivers of this ecosystem. Our analyses showed that the pangenome of the local Sal. ruber population is open and similar in size (~15,000 genes) to that of randomly sampled Escherichia coli genomes. While most of the accessory (noncore) genes were isolate-specific and showed low in situ abundances based on the metagenomes compared to the core genes, indicating that they were functionally unimportant and/or transient, 3.5% of them became abundant when salinity (but not light) conditions changed and encoded for functions related to osmoregulation. Nonetheless, the ecological advantage of these genes, while significant, was apparently not strong enough to purge diversity within the population. Collectively, our results provide an explanation for how this immense intrapopulation gene diversity is maintained, which has implications for the prokaryotic species concept.

    more » « less
  5. Antibiotic resistance is a growing concern that has prompted a renewed focus on drug discovery, stewardship, and evolutionary studies of the patterns and processes that underlie this phenomenon. A resistant strain’s competitive fitness relative to its sensitive counterparts in the absence of drug can impact its spread and persistence in both clinical and community settings. In a prior study, we examined the fitness of tetracycline-resistant clones that evolved from five different Escherichia coli genotypes, which had diverged during a long-term evolution experiment. In this study, we build on that work to examine whether ampicillin-resistant mutants are also less fit in the absence of the drug than their sensitive parents, and whether the cost of resistance is constant or variable among independently derived lines. Like the tetracycline-resistant lines, the ampicillin-resistant mutants were often less fit than their sensitive parents, with significant variation in the fitness costs among the mutants. This variation was not associated with the level of resistance conferred by the mutations, nor did it vary across the different parental backgrounds. In our earlier study, some of the variation in fitness costs associated with tetracycline resistance was explained by the effects of different mutations affecting the same cellular pathway and even the same gene. In contrast, the variance among the ampicillin-resistant mutants was associated with different sets of target genes. About half of the resistant clones suffered large fitness deficits, and their mutations impacted major outer-membrane proteins or subunits of RNA polymerases. The other mutants experienced little or no fitness costs and with, one exception, they had mutations affecting other genes and functions. Our findings underscore the importance of comparative studies on the evolution of antibiotic resistance, and they highlight the nuanced processes that shape these phenotypes. 
    more » « less