Parallel evolutionary dynamics of adaptive diversification in Escherichia coli

PLoS Biol. 2013;11(2):e1001490. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001490. Epub 2013 Feb 19.


The causes and mechanisms of evolutionary diversification are central issues in biology. Geographic isolation is the traditional explanation for diversification, but recent theoretical and empirical studies have shown that frequency-dependent selection can drive diversification without isolation and that adaptive diversification occurring in sympatry may be an important source of biological diversity. However, there are no empirical examples in which sympatric lineage splits have been understood at the genetic level, and it is unknown how predictable this process is-that is, whether similar ecological settings lead to parallel evolutionary dynamics of diversification. We documented the genetic basis and the evolutionary dynamics of adaptive diversification in three replicate evolution experiments, in which competition for two carbon sources caused initially isogenic populations of the bacterium Escherichia coli to diversify into two coexisting ecotypes representing different physiological adaptations in the central carbohydrate metabolism. Whole-genome sequencing of clones of each ecotype from different populations revealed many parallel and some unique genetic changes underlying the derived phenotypes, including changes to the same genes and sometimes to the same nucleotide. Timelines of allele frequencies extracted from the frozen "fossil" record of the three evolving populations suggest parallel evolutionary dynamics driven at least in part by a co-evolutionary process in which mutations causing one type of physiology changed the ecological environment, allowing the invasion of mutations causing an alternate physiology. This process closely corresponds to the evolutionary dynamics seen in mathematical models of adaptive diversification due to frequency-dependent ecological interactions. The parallel genetic changes underlying similar phenotypes in independently evolved lineages provide empirical evidence of adaptive diversification as a predictable evolutionary process.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • Escherichia coli / classification
  • Escherichia coli / genetics*
  • Models, Theoretical*

Grant support

M.D. was supported by NSERC (Canada) and by the Human Frontier Science Program. M.D.H. was supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.