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Mol Syst Biol. 2010 Aug 10;6:398. doi: 10.1038/msb.2010.57.

Cooperation and Hamilton's rule in a simple synthetic microbial system.

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Laboratory of Living Matter, and Center for Studies in Physics and Biology, The Rockefeller University, New York, NY, USA.


A fundamental problem in biology is understanding the evolutionary emergence and maintenance of altruistic behaviors. A well-recognized conceptual insight is provided by a general mathematical relation, Hamilton's rule. This rule can in principle be invoked to explain natural examples of cooperation, but measuring the variables that it involves is a particularly challenging problem and controlling these variables experimentally an even more daunting task. Here, we overcome these difficulties by using a simple synthetic microbial system of producers and nonproducers of an extracellular growth-enhancing molecule, which acts as a 'common good.' For this system, we are able to manipulate the intrinsic growth difference between producers and nonproducers, as well as the impact of the common good on the growth rate of its recipients. Our synthetic system is thus uniquely suited for studying the relation between the parameters entering Hamilton's rule and the quantities governing the systems' behavior. The experimental results highlight a crucial effect of nonlinearities in the response to the common good, which in general tend to limit the predictive value of Hamilton's rule.

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