Transposable elements as mutator genes in evolution

Nature. 1983 Jun 16-22;303(5918):633-5. doi: 10.1038/303633a0.


Strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli harbouring genes that increase mutation rates are known to have an evolutionary advantage in chemostat competition over otherwise isogeneic strains with lower mutation rates. This advantage is frequency-dependent, the mutator strain being favoured only above a starting ratio of approximately 5 x 10(-5), and it results from the fact that the necessary beneficial mutations cannot be generated in a mutator population below a certain size. Here we consider the possibility that the mutagenic properties of transposable elements confer an advantage in the same manner as mutator genes. A previous report has shown that the transposon Tn5 increases the fitness of E. coli in chemostats, although the reason for this effect has not been established. Our results show that the transposon Tn10 also confers an advantage in chemostats. In addition, we find that (1) this advantage, like that associated with mutator genes, is frequency-dependent, (2) whenever the Tn10 strains win, a segment of Tn10, probably its IS10 sequences, has undergone transposition to a new site, (3) the new insertions converge into a site contained within a 3.2 kilobase (kb) PvuII fragment of the genome, and (4) no transpositions are detected when the Tn10 population loses. We conclude that Tn10 confers an advantage by increasing the mutation rate of the host bacterium.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • DNA Transposable Elements*
  • DNA, Bacterial / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / genetics*
  • Escherichia coli / growth & development
  • Genes, Bacterial*
  • Nucleic Acid Hybridization


  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • DNA, Bacterial