Escherichia coli cultures maintain stable subpopulation structure during long-term evolution

Megan G. Behringer, Brian I. Choi, Samuel F. Miller, Thomas G. Doak, Jonathan A. Karty, Wanfeng Guo, Michael Lynch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


How genetic variation is generated and maintained remains a central question in evolutionary biology. When presented with a complex environment, microbes can take advantage of genetic variation to exploit new niches. Here we present a massively parallel experiment where WT and repair-deficient (ΔmutL) Escherichia coli populations have evolved over 3 y in a spatially heterogeneous and nutritionally complex environment. Metage-nomic sequencing revealed that these initially isogenic populations evolved and maintained stable subpopulation structure in just 10 mL of medium for up to 10,000 generations, consisting of up to five major haplotypes with many minor haplotypes. We characterized the genomic, transcriptomic, exometabolomic, and phenotypic differences between clonal isolates, revealing subpopulation structure driven primarily by spatial segregation followed by differential utilization of nutrients. In addition to genes regulating the import and catabolism of nutrients, major polymorphisms of note included insertion elements transposing into fimE (regulator of the type I fimbriae) and upstream of hns (global regulator of environmental-change and stress-response genes), both known to regulate biofilm formation. Interestingly, these genes have also been identified as critical to colonization in uro-pathogenic E. coli infections. Our findings illustrate the complexity that can arise and persist even in small cultures, raising the possibility that infections may often be promoted by an evolving and complex pathogen population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E4642-E4650
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number20
StatePublished - May 15 2018


  • Biofilm
  • Complex environment
  • Niche specialization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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