Competitive fates of bacterial social parasites: persistence and self-induced extinction of Myxococcus xanthus cheaters

Proc Biol Sci. 2003 Jul 22;270(1523):1527-34. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2003.2387.


Cooperative biological systems are susceptible to disruption by cheating. Using the social bacterium Myxococcus xanthus, we have tested the short-term competitive fates of mixed cheater and wild-type strains over multiple cycles of cooperative development. Cheater/wild-type mixes underwent several cycles of starvation-induced multicellular development followed by spore germination and vegetative population growth. The population sizes of cheater and wild-type strains in each pairwise mixture were measured at the end of each developmental phase and each growth phase. Cheater genotypes showed several distinct competitive fates, including cheater persistence at high frequencies with little effect on total population dynamics, cheater persistence after major disruption of total population dynamics, self-extinction of cheaters with wild-type survival, and total population extinction. Our results empirically demonstrate that social exploitation can destabilize a cooperative biological system and increase the risk of local extinction events.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • Colony Count, Microbial
  • Microbial Viability
  • Movement
  • Myxococcus xanthus / growth & development
  • Myxococcus xanthus / physiology*
  • Spores, Bacterial / physiology