American Society of Naturalists

A membership society whose goal is to advance and to diffuse knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles so as to enhance the conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

“Evolution at the edge of expanding populations”

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Maxime Deforet, Carlos Carmona-Fontaine, Kirill S. Korolev, and Joao B. Xavier (Sep 2019)

Read the Article (Just Accepted)


Predicting evolution of expanding populations is critical to control biological threats such as invasive species and cancer metastasis. Expansion is primarily driven by reproduction and dispersal, but nature abounds with examples of evolution where organisms pay a reproductive cost to disperse faster. When does selection favor this ‘survival of the fastest?’ We searched for a simple rule, motivated by evolution experiments where swarming bacteria evolved into an hyperswarmer mutant which disperses ~100% faster but pays a growth cost of ~10% to make many copies of its flagellum. We analyzed a two-species model based on the Fisher equation to explain this observation: the population expansion rate (v) results from an interplay of growth (r) and dispersal (D) and is independent of the carrying capacity: v=2√rD. A mutant can take over the edge only if its expansion rate (v2) exceeds the expansion rate of the established species’ (v1); this simple condition (v2 > v1) determines the maximum cost in slower growth that a faster mutant can pay and still be able to take over. Numerical simulations and time-course experiments where we tracked evolution by imaging bacteria suggest that our findings are general: less favorable conditions delay but do not entirely prevent the success of the fastest. Thus, the expansion rate defines a traveling wave fitness, which could be combined with trade-offs to predict evolution of expanding populations.