Background: Substrate cross-feeding occurs when one organism partially consumes a primary substrate into one or more metabolites while other organisms then consume the metabolites. While pervasive within microbial communities, our knowledge about the effects of substrate cross-feeding on microbial evolution remains limited. To address this knowledge gap, we experimentally evolved isogenic nitrite (NO2-) cross-feeding microbial strains together for 700 generations, identified genetic changes that were acquired over the evolution experiment, and compared the results with an isogenic completely denitrifying strain that was evolved alone for 700 generations. We further investigated how the magnitude of interdependence between the nitrite cross-feeding strains affects the main outcomes. Our main objective was to quantify how substrate cross-feeding and the magnitude of interdependence affect the speed and trajectory of molecular evolution.
Results: We found that each nitrite (NO2-) cross-feeding strain acquired fewer genetic changes than did the completely denitrifying strain. In contrast, pairs of nitrite cross-feeding strains together acquired more genetic changes than did the completely denitrifying strain. Moreover, nitrite cross-feeding promoted population diversification, as pairs of nitrite cross-feeding strains acquired a more varied set of genetic changes than did the completely denitrifying strain. These outcomes likely occurred because nitrite cross-feeding enabled the co-existence of two distinct microbial strains, thus increasing the amount of genetic variation for selection to act upon. Finally, the nitrite cross-feeding strains acquired different types of genetic changes than did the completely denitrifying strain, indicating that nitrite cross-feeding modulates the trajectory of molecular evolution.
Conclusions: Our results demonstrate that substrate cross-feeding can affect both the speed and trajectory of molecular evolution within microbial populations. Substrate cross-feeding can therefore have potentially important effects on the life histories of microorganisms.
Keywords: Cross-feeding; Denitrification; Experimental evolution; Microbial interactions; Molecular evolution; Mutualism.