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Bacteria develop restraint for survival in a rock-paper-scissors community
Date:6/20/2011

It is a common perception that bigger, stronger, faster organisms have a distinct advantage for long-term survival when competing with other organisms in a given community.

But new research from the University of Washington shows that in some structured communities, organisms increase their chances of survival if they evolve some level of restraint that allows competitors to survive as well, a sort of "survival of the weakest."

The phenomenon was observed in a community of three "nontransitive" competitors, meaning their relationship to each other is circular as in the children's game rock-paper-scissors in which scissors always defeats paper, paper always defeats rock and rock always defeats scissors.

In this case, the researchers created nontransitive communities of three strains of Escherichia coli bacteria, one that produces two antibiotics, one that is resistant to both antibiotics and one that is sensitive to both. The sensitive strain outgrows the resistant strain, which outgrows the producer, which kills the sensitive strain.

In communities in which the resistant strain curbed its pursuit of the producer, the resistant strain thrived. With no restraint, the resistant strain greatly reduced the population of the producer. But then the resistant strain was forced into greater competition with the strain sensitive to the antibiotics and the resistant strain's short-term gain meant its long-term demise.

"By becoming a better competitor in a well-mixed system, it could actually drive itself to extinction," said Joshua Nahum, a University of Washington graduate student in biology. "By growing faster, it actually can hurt its abundance."

Nahum is the lead author of a paper describing the work published online the week of June 22 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Co-authors are Brittany Harding, a UW biology undergraduate, and Benjamin Kerr, a UW associate professor of bio
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Contact: Vince Stricherz
vinces@uw.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
Source:Eurekalert

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