Background: In bacteria, cell size affects chromosome replication, the assembly of division machinery, cell wall synthesis, membrane synthesis and ultimately growth rate. In addition, cell size can also be a target for Darwinian evolution for protection from predators. This strong coupling of cell size and growth, however, could lead to the introduction of growth defects after size evolution. An important question remains: can bacterial cell size change and/or evolve without imposing a growth burden?
Results: The directed evolution of particular cell sizes, without a growth burden, was tested with a laboratory Escherichia coli strain. Cells of defined size ranges were collected by a cell sorter and were subsequently cultured. This selection-propagation cycle was repeated, and significant changes in cell size were detected within 400 generations. In addition, the width of the size distribution was altered. The changes in cell size were unaccompanied by a growth burden. Whole genome sequencing revealed that only a few mutations in genes related to membrane synthesis conferred the size evolution.
Conclusions: In conclusion, bacterial cell size could evolve, through a few mutations, without growth reduction. The size evolution without growth reduction suggests a rapid evolutionary change to diverse cell sizes in bacterial survival strategies.