Twelve populations of E. coli live in an incubator in Lenski's laboratory producing about seven new generations every 24 hours. Each day, scientists take one percent of each population and transfer it into a new food source, a flask containing fresh glucose, which the bacteria readily eat, and citrate, which one population discovered how to eat after more than 30,000 generations. The researchers also take samples every 500 generations, and freeze them for later study.
Because they freeze the samples, when something new emerges the scientists can go back to earlier generations to look for the steps that happened along the way, which is what occurred in this case.
The researchers found that at least three mutations were required for the bacteria to effectively use citrate when oxygen is present. One or more mutations were necessary to set the physiological stage for the two later events. Then a critical gene duplication occurred that effectively re-wired the expression of a previously silent gene.
"These bacteria have evolved to consume a food resource--citrate--that no wild E. coli uses. Three mutations are required for this to happen, and they must occur in a specific order," said George Gilchrist, NSF program manager for the BEACON Science and Technology Center. "This study shows that the first mutation is required to set the stage for the next two, but surprisingly, this turns out to occur repeatedly and independently in different populations. What this suggests is that complex traits, at least in the microbial world, can evolve quickly and repeatedly."
|Contact: Bobbie Mixon|
National Science Foundation