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Am Nat. 2011 Oct;178(4):538-52. doi: 10.1086/661897. Epub 2011 Aug 19.

A quantitative test of population genetics using spatiogenetic patterns in bacterial colonies.

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Department of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA.


It is widely accepted that population-genetics theory is the cornerstone of evolutionary analyses. Empirical tests of the theory, however, are challenging because of the complex relationships between space, dispersal, and evolution. Critically, we lack quantitative validation of the spatial models of population genetics. Here we combine analytics, on- and off-lattice simulations, and experiments with bacteria to perform quantitative tests of the theory. We study two bacterial species, the gut microbe Escherichia coli and the opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and show that spatiogenetic patterns in colony biofilms of both species are accurately described by an extension of the one-dimensional stepping-stone model. We use one empirical measure, genetic diversity at the colony periphery, to parameterize our models and show that we can then accurately predict another key variable: the degree of short-range cell migration along an edge. Moreover, the model allows us to estimate other key parameters, including effective population size (density) at the expansion frontier. While our experimental system is a simplification of natural microbial community, we argue that it constitutes proof of principle that the spatial models of population genetics can quantitatively capture organismal evolution.

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