The Ability of Flux Balance Analysis to Predict Evolution of Central Metabolism Scales with the Initial Distance to the Optimum

William R. Harcombe, Nigel F. Delaney, Nicholas Leiby, Niels Klitgord, Christopher J. Marx

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The most powerful genome-scale framework to model metabolism, flux balance analysis (FBA), is an evolutionary optimality model. It hypothesizes selection upon a proposed optimality criterion in order to predict the set of internal fluxes that would maximize fitness. Here we present a direct test of the optimality assumption underlying FBA by comparing the central metabolic fluxes predicted by multiple criteria to changes measurable by a 13C-labeling method for experimentally-evolved strains. We considered datasets for three Escherichia coli evolution experiments that varied in their length, consistency of environment, and initial optimality. For ten populations that were evolved for 50,000 generations in glucose minimal medium, we observed modest changes in relative fluxes that led to small, but significant decreases in optimality and increased the distance to the predicted optimal flux distribution. In contrast, seven populations evolved on the poor substrate lactate for 900 generations collectively became more optimal and had flux distributions that moved toward predictions. For three pairs of central metabolic knockouts evolved on glucose for 600-800 generations, there was a balance between cases where optimality and flux patterns moved toward or away from FBA predictions. Despite this variation in predictability of changes in central metabolism, two generalities emerged. First, improved growth largely derived from evolved increases in the rate of substrate use. Second, FBA predictions bore out well for the two experiments initiated with ancestors with relatively sub-optimal yield, whereas those begun already quite optimal tended to move somewhat away from predictions. These findings suggest that the tradeoff between rate and yield is surprisingly modest. The observed positive correlation between rate and yield when adaptation initiated further from the optimum resulted in the ability of FBA to use stoichiometric constraints to predict the evolution of metabolism despite selection for rate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1003091
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2013


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