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Open Access Research article

Recovering from a bad start: rapid adaptation and tradeoffs to growth below a threshold density

Christopher J Marx

Author Affiliations

Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

Faculty of Arts and Sciences Center for Systems Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:109  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-109

Published: 4 July 2012

Abstract

Background

Bacterial growth in well-mixed culture is often assumed to be an autonomous process only depending upon the external conditions under control of the investigator. However, increasingly there is awareness that interactions between cells in culture can lead to surprising phenomena such as density-dependence in the initiation of growth.

Results

Here I report the unexpected discovery of a density threshold for growth of a strain of Methylobacterium extorquens AM1 used to inoculate eight replicate populations that were evolved in methanol. Six of these populations failed to grow to the expected full density during the first couple transfers. Remarkably, the final cell number of six populations crashed to levels 60- to 400-fold smaller than their cohorts. Five of these populations recovered to full density soon after, but one population remained an order of magnitude smaller for over one hundred generations. These variable dynamics appeared to be due to a density threshold for growth that was specific to both this particular ancestral strain and to growth on methanol. When tested at full density, this population had become less fit than its ancestor. Simply increasing the initial dilution 16-fold reversed this result, revealing that this population had more than a 3-fold advantage when tested at this lower density. As this population evolved and ultimately recovered to the same final density range as the other populations this low-density advantage waned.

Conclusions

These results demonstrate surprisingly strong tradeoffs during adaptation to growth at low absolute densities that manifest over just a 16-fold change in density. Capturing laboratory examples of transitions to and from growth at low density may help us understand the physiological and evolutionary forces that have led to the unusual properties of natural bacteria that have specialized to low-density environments such as the open ocean.