Background: Environmental conditions affect the topology of the adaptive landscape and thus the trajectories followed by evolving populations. For example, a heterogeneous environment might lead to a more rugged adaptive landscape, making it more likely that replicate populations would evolve toward distinct adaptive peaks, relative to a uniform environment. To date, the influence of environmental variability on evolutionary dynamics has received relatively little experimental study.
Results: We report findings from an experiment designed to test the effects of environmental variability on the adaptation and divergence of replicate populations of E. coli. A total of 42 populations evolved for 2000 generations in 7 environmental regimes that differed in the number, identity, and presentation of the limiting resource. Regimes were organized in two sets, having the sugars glucose and maltose singly and in combination, or glucose and lactose singly and in combination. Combinations of sugars were presented either simultaneously or as temporally fluctuating resource regimes. This design allowed us to compare the effects of resource identity and presentation on the evolutionary trajectories followed by replicate populations. After 2000 generations, the fitness of all populations had increased relative to the common ancestor, but to different extents. Populations evolved in glucose improved the least, whereas populations evolving in maltose or lactose increased the most in their respective sets. Among-population divergence also differed across regimes, with variation higher in those groups that evolved in fluctuating environments than in those that faced constant resource regimens. This divergence under the fluctuating conditions increased between 1000 and 2000 generations, consistent with replicate populations evolving toward distinct adaptive peaks.
Conclusions: These results support the hypothesis that environmental heterogeneity can give rise to more rugged adaptive landscapes, which in turn promote evolutionary diversification. These results also demonstrate that this effect depends on the form of environmental heterogeneity, with greater divergence when the pairs of resources fluctuated temporally rather than being presented simultaneously.