Mutator dynamics in fluctuating environments

Proc Biol Sci. 2002 Mar 22;269(1491):591-7. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2001.1902.


Populations with high mutation rates (mutator clones) are being found in increasing numbers of species, and a clear link is being established between the presence of mutator clones and drug resistance. Mutator clones exist despite the fact that in a constant environment most mutations are deleterious, with the spontaneous mutation rate generally held at a low value. This implies that mutator clones have an important role in the adaptation of organisms to changing environments. Our study examines how mutator dynamics vary according to the frequency of environmental fluctuations. Although recent studies have considered a single environmental switch, here we investigate mutator dynamics in a regularly varying environment, seeking to mimic conditions present, for example, under certain drug or pesticide regimes. Our model provides four significant new insights. First, the results demonstrate that mutators are most prevalent under intermediate rates of environmental change. When the environment oscillates more rapidly, mutators are unable to provide sufficient adaptability to keep pace with the frequent changes in selection pressure and, instead, a population of 'environmental generalists' dominates. Second, our findings reveal that mutator dynamics may be complex, exhibiting limit cycles and chaos. Third, we demonstrate that when each beneficial mutation provides a greater gain in fitness, mutators achieve higher densities in more rapidly fluctuating environments. Fourth, we find that mutators of intermediate strength reach higher densities than very weak or strong mutators.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / genetics*
  • Alleles
  • Environment*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Genetic Variation / genetics*
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Mutagenesis / genetics*
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Time Factors