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Nature. 2006 May 18;441(7091):310-4.

Evolution of an obligate social cheater to a superior cooperator.

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Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Spemannstrasse 35, D-72076 Tübingen, Germany.


Obligate relationships have evolved many times and can be parasitic or mutualistic. Obligate organisms rely on others to survive and thus coevolve with their host or partner. An important but little explored question is whether obligate status is an evolutionarily terminal condition or whether obligate lineages can evolve back to an autonomous lifestyle. The bacterium Myxococcus xanthus survives starvation by the social development of spore-bearing fruiting bodies. Some M. xanthus genotypes defective at fruiting body development in isolation can nonetheless exploit proficient genotypes in chimaeric groups. Here we report an evolutionary transition from obligate dependence on an altruistic host to an autonomous mode of social cooperation. This restoration of social independence was caused by a single mutation of large effect that confers fitness superiority over both ancestral genotypes, including immunity from exploitation by the ancestral cheater. Thus, a temporary state of obligate cheating served as an evolutionary stepping-stone to a novel state of autonomous social dominance.

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