Tuesday, August 12, 2014

genetic information transfer promotes cooperation in bacteria

pnas |  Many bacterial species are social, producing costly secreted “public good” molecules that enhance the growth of neighboring cells. The genes coding for these cooperative traits are often propagated via mobile genetic elements and can be virulence factors from a biomedical perspective. Here, we present an experimental framework that links genetic information exchange and the selection of cooperative traits. Using simulations and experiments based on a synthetic bacterial system to control public good secretion and plasmid conjugation, we demonstrate that horizontal gene transfer can favor cooperation. In a well-mixed environment, horizontal transfer brings a direct infectious advantage to any gene, regardless of its cooperation properties. However, in a structured population transfer selects specifically for cooperation by increasing the assortment among cooperative alleles. Conjugation allows cooperative alleles to overcome rarity thresholds and invade bacterial populations structured purely by stochastic dilution effects. Our results provide an explanation for the prevalence of cooperative genes on mobile elements, and suggest a previously unidentified benefit of horizontal gene transfer for bacteria. 

Bacteria often cooperate through the production of public goods that change their environment. These processes can affect human health by increasing virulence or antibiotic resistance. Public good production is costly, making cooperation susceptible to invasion by nonproducing “cheater” individuals. Bacteria also readily share genes, even among distinct species. Our experiments and models converge to show that when both cheating and cooperative genes are transferred, cooperators win against cheaters because transfer increases assortment among alleles, favoring cooperation. This can explain why genes for cooperation are often mobile, and suggests that, in addition to reducing antibiotic resistance spread, preventing gene mobility could reduce cooperative virulence.