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Genetics. 2001 Jun;158(2):519-26.

Evolutionary cheating in Escherichia coli stationary phase cultures.

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Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA.


Starved cultures of Escherichia coli are highly dynamic, undergoing frequent population shifts. The shifts result from the spread of mutants able to grow under conditions that impose growth arrest on the ancestral population. To analyze competitive interactions underlying this dynamic we measured the survival of a typical mutant and the wild type during such population shifts. Here we show that the survival advantage of the mutant at any given time during a takeover is inversely dependent on its frequency in the population, its growth adversely affects the survival of the wild type, and its ability to survive in stationary phase at fixation is lower than that of its ancestor. These mutants do not enter, or exit early, the nondividing stationary-phase state, cooperatively maintained by the wild type. Thus they end up overrepresented as compared to their initial frequency at the onset of the stationary phase, and subsequently they increase disproportionately their contribution in terms of progeny to the succeeding generation in the next growth cycle, which is a case of evolutionary cheating. If analyzed through the game theory framework, these results might be explained by the prisoner's dilemma type of conflict, which predicts that selfish defection is favored over cooperation.

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