We describe the short- and long-term dynamics of a phenotypic polymorphism that arose in a population of Escherichia coli while it was serially propagated for almost 20,000 generations in a glucose-limited minimal medium. The two types, designated L and S, differ conspicuously in the size of the colonies they form on agar plates as well as the size of their individual cells, and these differences are heritable. The S type reached a detectable frequency (>1%) at generation 6,000, and it remained above that frequency throughout the subsequent generations. In addition to morphological differences, L and S diverged in important ecological properties. With clones isolated at 18,000 generations, L has a maximal growth rate in fresh medium that is ∼20% higher than that of S. However, experiments with conditioned media demonstrate that L and S secrete one or more metabolites that promote the growth of S but not of L. The death rate of L during stationary phase also increases when S is abundant, which suggests that S may either secrete a metabolite that is toxic to L or remove some factor that enables the survival of L. One-day competition experiments with the clones isolated at generation 18,000 show that their relative fitness is frequency dependent, with each type having an advantage when rare. When these two types are grown together for a period of several weeks, they converge on an equilibrium frequency that is consistent with the 1-d competition experiments. Over the entire 14,000-generation period of coexistence, however, the frequency of the S type fluctuated between approximately 10% and 85%. We offer several hypotheses that may explain the fluctuations in this balanced polymorphism, including the possibility of coevolution between the two types.
Keywords: Escherichia coli; experimental evolution; frequency‐dependent selection; stable polymorphism.