The tragedy of the commons in microbial populations: insights from theoretical, comparative and experimental studies

Heredity (Edinb). 2008 Mar;100(3):233-9. doi: 10.1038/sj.hdy.6801073. Epub 2007 Oct 24.


First principles of thermodynamics imply that metabolic pathways are faced with a trade-off between the rate and yield of ATP production. Simple evolutionary models argue that this trade-off generates a fundamental social conflict in microbial populations: average fitness in a population is highest if all individuals exploit common resources efficiently, but individual reproductive rate is maximized by consuming common resources at the highest possible rate, a scenario known as the tragedy of the commons. In this paper, I review studies that have addressed two key questions: What is the evidence that the rate-yield trade-off is an evolutionary constraint on metabolic pathways? And, if so, what determines evolutionary outcome of the conflicts generated by this trade-off? Comparative studies and microbial experiments provide evidence that the rate-yield trade-off is an evolutionary constraint that is driven by thermodynamic constraints that are common to all metabolic pathways and pathway-specific constraints that reflect the evolutionary history of populations. Microbial selection experiments show that the evolutionary consequences of this trade-off depend on both kin selection and biochemical constraints. In well-mixed populations with low relatedness, genotypes with rapid and efficient metabolism can coexist as a result of negative frequency-dependent selection generated by density-dependent biochemical costs of rapid metabolism. Kin selection can promote the maintenance of efficient metabolism in structured populations with high relatedness by ensuring that genotypes with efficient metabolic pathways gain an indirect fitness benefit from their competitive restraint. I conclude by suggesting avenues for future research and by discussing the broader implications of this work for microbial social evolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Competitive Behavior / physiology*
  • Genotype
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways / physiology*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Thermodynamics