Patchy distribution of flexible genetic elements in bacterial populations mediates robustness to environmental uncertainty

Heuer, Holger GND; Abdo, Zaid; Smalla, Kornelia GND

The generation and maintenance of genetic variation seems to be a general ecological strategy of bacterial populations. Thereby they gain robustness to irregular environmental change, which is primarily the result of the dynamic evolution of biotic interactions. A benefit of maintaining population heterogeneity is that only a fraction of the population has to bear the cost of not (yet) beneficial deviation. On evolutionary time frames, an added value of the underlying mechanisms is evolvability, i.e. the heritable ability of an evolutionary lineage to generate and maintain genetic variants that are potentially adaptive in the course of evolution. Horizontal gene transfer is an important mechanism that can lead to differences between individuals within bacterial populations. Broad host-range plasmids foster this heterogeneity because they are typically present in only a fraction of the population and provide individual cells with genetic modules newlyacquired from other populations or species. We postulate that the benefit of robustness on population level could balance the cost of transfer and replication functions that plasmids impose on their hosts. Consequently, mechanisms that make a subpopulation conducive to specific conjugative plasmids may have evolved, which could explain the persistence of even cryptic plasmids that do not encode any traits.

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Heuer, Holger / Abdo, Zaid / Smalla, Kornelia: Patchy distribution of flexible genetic elements in bacterial populations mediates robustness to environmental uncertainty. 2008.

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