Experimental evidence for sympatric ecological diversification due to frequency-dependent competition in Escherichia coli

Evolution. 2004 Feb;58(2):245-60.


We investigate adaptive diversification in experimental Escherichia coli populations grown in serial batch cultures on a mixture of glucose and acetate. All 12 experimental lines were started from the same genetically uniform ancestral strain but became highly polymorphic for colony size after 1000 generations. Five populations were clearly dimorphic and thus serve as a model for an adaptive lineage split. We analyzed the ecological basis for this dimorphism by studying bacterial growth curves. All strains exhibit diauxie, that is, sequential growth on the two resources. Thus, they exhibit phenotypic plasticity, using mostly glucose when glucose is abundant, then switching to acetate when glucose concentration is low. However, the coexisting strains differ in their diauxie pattern, with one cluster in the dimorphic populations growing better in the glucose phase, and the other cluster having a much shorter lag when switching to the acetate phase. Using invasion experiments, we show that the dimorphism of these two ecological types is maintained by frequency-dependent selection. Using a mathematical model for the adaptive dynamics of diauxie behavior, we show that evolutionary branching in diauxie behavior is a plausible theoretical scenario. Our results support the hypothesis that, in our experiments, adaptive diversification from a genetically uniform ancestor occurred due to frequency-dependent ecological interactions. Our results have implications for understanding the evolution of cross-feeding polymorphism in microorganisms, as well as adaptive speciation due to frequency-dependent selection on phenotypic plasticity.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Biological Evolution
  • Culture Media
  • Ecosystem*
  • Escherichia coli / growth & development*
  • Escherichia coli / physiology
  • Glucose / metabolism
  • Models, Biological*
  • Polymorphism, Genetic*
  • Selection, Genetic*


  • Culture Media
  • Glucose