Cooperative behaviour is widespread in nature, even though cooperating individuals always run the risk of being exploited by free-riders. Population structure effectively promotes cooperation given that a threshold in the level of cooperation was already reached. However, the question how cooperation can emerge from a single mutant, which cannot rely on a benefit provided by other cooperators, is still puzzling. Here, we investigate this question for a well-defined but generic situation based on typical life cycles of microbial populations where individuals regularly form new colonies followed by growth phases. We analyse two evolutionary mechanisms favouring cooperative behaviour and study their strength depending on the inoculation size and the length of a life cycle. In particular, we find that population bottlenecks followed by exponential growth phases strongly increase the survival and fixation probabilities of a single cooperator in a free-riding population.
Keywords: cooperation; evolution; public good.
© 2015 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.