Negative frequency-dependent selection and asymmetrical transformation stabilise multi-strain bacterial population structures

ISME J. 2021 Jan 6. doi: 10.1038/s41396-020-00867-w. Online ahead of print.


Streptococcus pneumoniae can be divided into many strains, each a distinct set of isolates sharing similar core and accessory genomes, which co-circulate within the same hosts. Previous analyses suggested the short-term vaccine-associated dynamics of S. pneumoniae strains may be mediated through multi-locus negative frequency-dependent selection (NFDS), which maintains accessory loci at equilibrium frequencies. Long-term simulations demonstrated NFDS stabilised clonally-evolving multi-strain populations through preventing the loss of variation through drift, based on polymorphism frequencies, pairwise genetic distances and phylogenies. However, allowing symmetrical recombination between isolates evolving under multi-locus NFDS generated unstructured populations of diverse genotypes. Replication of the observed data improved when multi-locus NFDS was combined with recombination that was instead asymmetrical, favouring deletion of accessory loci over insertion. This combination separated populations into strains through outbreeding depression, resulting from recombinants with reduced accessory genomes having lower fitness than their parental genotypes. Although simplistic modelling of recombination likely limited these simulations' ability to maintain some properties of genomic data as accurately as those lacking recombination, the combination of asymmetrical recombination and multi-locus NFDS could restore multi-strain population structures from randomised initial populations. As many bacteria inhibit insertions into their chromosomes, this combination may commonly underlie the co-existence of strains within a niche.