“The relationship between spatial structure and the maintenance of diversity in microbial populations”

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Michael T. France and Larry J. Forney (Apr 2019)

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Spatial structure is pervasive in the microbial world, yet we know little about how it influences the evolution of microbial populations. It is thought that spatial structure limits the scale of competitive interactions and protracts selective sweeps. This may allow microbial populations to simultaneously explore multiple evolutionary paths. But how structured a microbial population must be before this effect is realized is not known. We used empirical and simulation studies to explore the relationship between spatial structure and the maintenance of diversity. The degree of spatial structure experienced by Escherichia coli metapopulations was manipulated by varying the migration rate between its component subpopulations. Each subpopulation was inoculated with an equal number of two equally fit genotypes and their frequencies in 12 subpopulations were determined during 150 generations of evolution. We observed that the frequency of the ‘loser’ genotypes decreased exponentially as the migration rate between the subpopulations was increased and that higher frequencies of the ‘loser’ genotypes were maintained in structured metapopulations. These results demonstrate that structured microbial populations can evolve along multiple evolutionary trajectories even when migration rates between the subpopulations are relatively high.