Microbes often engage in cooperation through releasing biosynthetic compounds required by other species to grow. Given that production of costly biosynthetic metabolites is generally subjected to multiple layers of negative feedback, single mutations may frequently be insufficient to generate cooperative phenotypes. Synergistic epistatic interactions between multiple coordinated changes may thus often underlie the evolution of cooperation through overproduction of metabolites. To test the importance of synergistic mutations in cooperation we used an engineered bacterial consortium of an Escherichia coli methionine auxotroph and Salmonella enterica. S. enterica relies on carbon by-products from E. coli if lactose is the only carbon source. Directly selecting wild-type S. enterica in an environment that favored cooperation through secretion of methionine only once led to a methionine producer, and this producer both took a long time to emerge and was not very effective at cooperating. On the other hand, when an initial selection for resistance of S. enterica to a toxic methionine analog, ethionine, was used, subsequent selection for cooperation with E. coli was rapid, and the resulting double mutants were much more effective at cooperation. We found that potentiating mutations in metJ increase expression of metA, which encodes the first step of methionine biosynthesis. This increase in expression is required for the previously identified actualizing mutations in metA to generate cooperation. This work highlights that where biosynthesis of metabolites involves multiple layers of regulation, significant secretion of those metabolites may require multiple mutations, thereby constraining the evolution of cooperation.
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© 2017 Douglas et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.