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Trends Genet. 2015 Aug;31(8):475-82. doi: 10.1016/j.tig.2015.05.004. Epub 2015 Jun 12.

Black Queen evolution: the role of leakiness in structuring microbial communities.

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Department of Biology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL, USA; BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA. Electronic address:


Black Queen (BQ) functions are biological processes that yield neither purely private nor purely public products. This partitioning of benefits, also called 'leakiness', can produce negative frequency dependence of fitness in microbial communities, allowing coexistence between function-performing helpers and function-requiring beneficiaries. The ubiquity of leakiness favors a 'race to the bottom' as members of a community lose the ability to perform functions whose products are available from the environment. Rather than being social altruists, helpers are merely those populations that lost this race and got stuck in their role as function performers. Here I discuss many such BQ functions and the microbial communities that evolve around them. I also compile evidence from laboratory evolution experiments as well as phylogenetic reconstructions that show that organisms gain greater fitness increases from gene/function loss events than is commonly expected. Finally, I consider possible consequences of long-term BQ-stabilized coexistence, including sympatric speciation and the evolution of true mutualisms.

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