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Genetics. 2003 Jul;164(3):843-54.

The evolution of mutator genes in bacterial populations: the roles of environmental change and timing.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia 30322, USA.


Recent studies have found high frequencies of bacteria with increased genomic rates of mutation in both clinical and laboratory populations. These observations may seem surprising in light of earlier experimental and theoretical studies. Mutator genes (genes that elevate the genomic mutation rate) are likely to induce deleterious mutations and thus suffer an indirect selective disadvantage; at the same time, bacteria carrying them can increase in frequency only by generating beneficial mutations at other loci. When clones carrying mutator genes are rare, however, these beneficial mutations are far more likely to arise in members of the much larger nonmutator population. How then can mutators become prevalent? To address this question, we develop a model of the population dynamics of bacteria confronted with ever-changing environments. Using analytical and simulation procedures, we explore the process by which initially rare mutator alleles can rise in frequency. We demonstrate that subsequent to a shift in environmental conditions, there will be relatively long periods of time during which the mutator subpopulation can produce a beneficial mutation before the ancestral subpopulations are eliminated. If the beneficial mutation arises early enough, the overall frequency of mutators will climb to a point higher than when the process began. The probability of producing a subsequent beneficial mutation will then also increase. In this manner, mutators can increase in frequency over successive selective sweeps. We discuss the implications and predictions of these theoretical results in relation to antibiotic resistance and the evolution of mutation rates.

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