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J Theor Biol. 2005 May 21;234(2):255-62.

A microbial modified prisoner's dilemma game: how frequency-dependent selection can lead to random phase variation.

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Physical Biosciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 1 Cyclotron Road, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.


Random phase variation (RPV) is a control strategy in which the expression of a cell state or phenotype randomly alternates between discrete 'on' and 'off' states. Though this mode of control is common for bacterial virulence factors like pili and toxins, precise conditions under which RPV confers an advantage have not been well defined. In Part I of this study, we predicted that fluctuating environments select for RPV if transitions between different selective environments cannot be reliably sensed (J. Theor. Biol. (2005)). However, selective forces both inside and outside of human hosts are also likely to be frequency dependent in the sense that the fitnesses of some bacterial states are greatest when rare. Here we show that RPV at slow rates can provide a survival advantage in such a frequency-dependent environment by generating population heterogeneity, essentially mimicking a polymorphism. More surprisingly, RPV at a faster 'optimal' rate can shift the population composition toward an optimal growth rate that exceeds that possible for polymorphic populations, but this optimal strategy is not evolutionarily stable. The population would be most fit if all cells randomly phase varied at the optimal rate, but individual cells have a growth-rate incentive to defect (mutate) to other switching rates or non-phase variable phenotype expression, leading to an overall loss of fitness of the individual and the population. This scenario describes a modified Prisoner's Dilemma game (Evolution and the Theory of Games, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, 1982, viii, 224pp.; Nature 398 (6726) (1999) 367), with random phase variation at optimal switching rates serving as the cooperation strategy.

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