Experimental evidence for sympatric ecological diversification due to frequency-dependent competition in Escherichia coli

Maren L. Friesen, Gerda Saxer, Michael Travisano, Michael Doebeli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

144 Scopus citations


We investigate adaptive diversification in experimental Escherichia coli populations grown in serial batch cultures on a mixture of glucose and acetate. All 12 experimental lines were started from the same genetically uniform ancestral strain but became highly polymorphic for colony size after 1000 generations. Five populations were clearly dimorphic and thus serve as a model for an adaptive lineage split. We analyzed the ecological basis for this dimorphism by studying bacterial growth curves. All strains exhibit diauxie, that is, sequential growth on the two resources. Thus, they exhibit phenotypic plasticity, using mostly glucose when glucose is abundant, then switching to acetate when glucose concentration is low. However, the coexisting strains differ in their diauxie pattern, with one cluster in the dimorphic populations growing better in the glucose phase, and the other cluster having a much shorter lag when switching to the acetate phase. Using invasion experiments, we show that the dimorphism of these two ecological types is maintained by frequency-dependent selection. Using a mathematical model for the adaptive dynamics of diauxie behavior, we show that evolutionary branching in diauxie behavior is a plausible theoretical scenario. Our results support the hypothesis that, in our experiments, adaptive diversification from a genetically uniform ancestor occurred due to frequency-dependent ecological interactions. Our results have implications for understanding the evolution of cross-feeding polymorphism in microorganisms, as well as adaptive speciation due to frequency-dependent selection on phenotypic plasticity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)245-260
Number of pages16
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Adaptive dynamics
  • Diauxie
  • Experimental evolution
  • Phenotypic plasticity
  • Sympatric speciation

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Experimental evidence for sympatric ecological diversification due to frequency-dependent competition in Escherichia coli'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this