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Mutator genomes decay, despite sustained fitness gains, in a long-term experiment with bacteria

TitleMutator genomes decay, despite sustained fitness gains, in a long-term experiment with bacteria
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsCouce, A, Caudwell, LViraphong, Feinauer, C, Hindré, T, Feugeas, J-P, Weigt, M, Lenski, RE, Schneider, D, Tenaillon, O
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Understanding the extreme variation among bacterial genomes remains an unsolved challenge in evolutionary biology, despite long-standing debate about the relative importance of natural selection, mutation, and random drift. A potentially important confounding factor is the variation in mutation rates between lineages and over evolutionary history, which has been documented in several species. Mutation accumulation experiments have shown that hypermutability can erode genomes over short timescales. These results, however, were obtained under conditions of extremely weak selection, casting doubt on their general relevance. Here, we circumvent this limitation by analyzing genomes from mutator populations that arose during a long-term experiment with Escherichia coli, in which populations have been adaptively evolving for >50,000 generations. We develop an analytical framework to quantify the relative contributions of mutation and selection in shaping genomic characteristics, and we validate it using genomes evolved under regimes of high mutation rates with weak selection (mutation accumulation experiments) and low mutation rates with strong selection (natural isolates). Our results show that, despite sustained adaptive evolution in the long-term experiment, the signature of selection is much weaker than that of mutational biases in mutator genomes. This finding suggests that relatively brief periods of hypermutability can play an outsized role in shaping extant bacterial genomes. Overall, these results highlight the importance of genomic draft, in which strong linkage limits the ability of selection to purge deleterious mutations. These insights are also relevant to other biological systems evolving under strong linkage and high mutation rates, including viruses and cancer cells.


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