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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Multiple long-term, experimentally-evolved populations of Escherichia coli acquire dependence upon citrate as an iron chelator for optimal growth on glucose

Nicholas Leiby12, William R Harcombe2 and Christopher J Marx23*

Author affiliations

1 Systems Biology Graduate Program, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

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

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

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:151  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-151

Published: 21 August 2012



Specialization for ecological niches is a balance of evolutionary adaptation and its accompanying tradeoffs. Here we focus on the Lenski Long-Term Evolution Experiment, which has maintained cultures of Escherichia coli in the same defined seasonal environment for 50,000 generations. Over this time, much adaptation and specialization to the environment has occurred. The presence of citrate in the growth media selected one lineage to gain the novel ability to utilize citrate as a carbon source after 31,000 generations. Here we test whether other strains have specialized to rely on citrate after 50,000 generations.


We show that in addition to the citrate-catabolizing strain, three other lineages evolving in parallel have acquired a dependence on citrate for optimal growth on glucose. None of these strains were stimulated indirectly by the sodium present in disodium citrate, nor exhibited even partial utilization of citrate as a carbon source. Instead, all three of these citrate-stimulated populations appear to rely on it as a chelator of iron.


The strains we examine here have evolved specialization to their environment through apparent loss of function. Our results are most consistent with the accumulation of mutations in iron transport genes that were obviated by abundant citrate. The results present another example where a subtle decision in the design of an evolution experiment led to unexpected evolutionary outcomes.

Tradeoffs; Specialization; Iron-limitation; Citrate