Evolution of divergent life history strategies in marine alphaproteobacteria

mBio. 2013 Jul 9;4(4):e00373-13. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00373-13.


Marine bacteria in the Roseobacter and SAR11 lineages successfully exploit the ocean habitat, together accounting for ~40% of bacteria in surface waters, yet have divergent life histories that exemplify patch-adapted versus free-living ecological roles. Here, we use a phylogenetic birth-and-death model to understand how genome content supporting different life history strategies evolved in these related alphaproteobacterial taxa, showing that the streamlined genomes of free-living SAR11 were gradually downsized from a common ancestral genome only slightly larger than the extant members (~2,000 genes), while the larger and variably sized genomes of roseobacters evolved along dynamic pathways from a sizeable common ancestor (~8,000 genes). Genome changes in the SAR11 lineage occurred gradually over ~800 million years, whereas Roseobacter genomes underwent more substantial modifications, including major periods of expansion, over ~260 million years. The timing of the first Roseobacter genome expansion was coincident with the predicted radiation of modern marine eukaryotic phytoplankton of sufficient size to create nutrient-enriched microzones and is consistent with present-day ecological associations between these microbial groups. We suggest that diversification of red-lineage phytoplankton is an important driver of divergent life history strategies among the heterotrophic bacterioplankton taxa that dominate the present-day ocean.

Importance: One-half of global primary production occurs in the oceans, and more than half of this is processed by heterotrophic bacterioplankton through the marine microbial food web. The diversity of life history strategies that characterize different bacterioplankton taxa is an important subject, since the locations and mechanisms whereby bacteria interact with seawater organic matter has effects on microbial growth rates, metabolic pathways, and growth efficiencies, and these in turn affect rates of carbon mineralization to the atmosphere and sequestration into the deep sea. Understanding the evolutionary origins of the ecological strategies that underlie biochemical interactions of bacteria with the ocean system, and which scale up to affect globally important biogeochemical processes, will improve understanding of how microbial diversity is maintained and enable useful predictions about microbial response in the future ocean.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Alphaproteobacteria / genetics*
  • Aquatic Organisms / genetics*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genome, Bacterial
  • Seawater / microbiology*