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J Theor Biol. 2007 Dec 7;249(3):582-92. Epub 2007 Aug 24.

Optimizing bacteriophage plaque fecundity.

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Department of Microbiology, The Ohio State University, Mansfield, OH 44906, USA.


Bacteriophages (phages), the viruses of bacteria, form visible lesions within bacterial lawns (called plaques), which are employed ubiquitously in phage isolation and characterization. Plaques also can serve as models for phage population growth within environments that display significant spatial structure, e.g. soils, sediments, animal mucosal tissue, etc. Furthermore, phages growing within plaques, in experimental evolution studies, may become adapted to novel conditions, may be selected for faster expansion, or may evolve toward producing more virions per plaque. Here, we examine the evolution of the latter, greater plaque fecundity, considering especially tradeoffs between phage latent period and phage burst size. This evolution is interesting because genetically lengthening latent periods, as seen with phage lysis-timing mutants, should increase phage burst sizes, as more time is available for phage-progeny maturation during infection. Genetically shortening latent periods, however, is a means toward producing larger phage plaques since phage virions then can spend more time diffusing rather than infecting. With these larger plaques more bacteria become phage infected, resulting in more phage bursts. Given this conflict between latent period's impact on per-plaque burst number versus per-infection burst size, and based on analysis of existing models of plaque expansion, we provide two assertions. First, latent periods that optimize plaque fecundity are longer (e.g. at least two-fold longer) than latent periods that optimize plaque size (or that optimize phage population growth within broth). Second, if increases in burst size can contribute to plaque size (i.e. larger plaques with larger bursts), then latent-period optima that maximize plaque fecundity should be longer still. As a part of our analysis, we provide a means for predicting latent-period optima-for maximizing either plaque size or plaque fecundity-which is based on knowledge of only phage eclipse period and the relative contribution of phage burst size versus latent period toward plaque size.

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