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1.  The Black Queen Hypothesis: Evolution of Dependencies through Adaptive Gene Loss 
mBio  2012;3(2):e00036-12.
Reductive genomic evolution, driven by genetic drift, is common in endosymbiotic bacteria. Genome reduction is less common in free-living organisms, but it has occurred in the numerically dominant open-ocean bacterioplankton Prochlorococcus and “Candidatus Pelagibacter,” and in these cases the reduction appears to be driven by natural selection rather than drift. Gene loss in free-living organisms may leave them dependent on cooccurring microbes for lost metabolic functions. We present the Black Queen Hypothesis (BQH), a novel theory of reductive evolution that explains how selection leads to such dependencies; its name refers to the queen of spades in the game Hearts, where the usual strategy is to avoid taking this card. Gene loss can provide a selective advantage by conserving an organism’s limiting resources, provided the gene’s function is dispensable. Many vital genetic functions are leaky, thereby unavoidably producing public goods that are available to the entire community. Such leaky functions are thus dispensable for individuals, provided they are not lost entirely from the community. The BQH predicts that the loss of a costly, leaky function is selectively favored at the individual level and will proceed until the production of public goods is just sufficient to support the equilibrium community; at that point, the benefit of any further loss would be offset by the cost. Evolution in accordance with the BQH thus generates “beneficiaries” of reduced genomic content that are dependent on leaky “helpers,” and it may explain the observed nonuniversality of prototrophy, stress resistance, and other cellular functions in the microbial world.
PMCID: PMC3315703  PMID: 22448042
2.  Dependence of the Cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus on Hydrogen Peroxide Scavenging Microbes for Growth at the Ocean's Surface 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(2):e16805.
The phytoplankton community in the oligotrophic open ocean is numerically dominated by the cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus, accounting for approximately half of all photosynthesis. In the illuminated euphotic zone where Prochlorococcus grows, reactive oxygen species are continuously generated via photochemical reactions with dissolved organic matter. However, Prochlorococcus genomes lack catalase and additional protective mechanisms common in other aerobes, and this genus is highly susceptible to oxidative damage from hydrogen peroxide (HOOH). In this study we showed that the extant microbial community plays a vital, previously unrecognized role in cross-protecting Prochlorococcus from oxidative damage in the surface mixed layer of the oligotrophic ocean. Microbes are the primary HOOH sink in marine systems, and in the absence of the microbial community, surface waters in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean accumulated HOOH to concentrations that were lethal for Prochlorococcus cultures. In laboratory experiments with the marine heterotroph Alteromonas sp., serving as a proxy for the natural community of HOOH-degrading microbes, bacterial depletion of HOOH from the extracellular milieu prevented oxidative damage to the cell envelope and photosystems of co-cultured Prochlorococcus, and facilitated the growth of Prochlorococcus at ecologically-relevant cell concentrations. Curiously, the more recently evolved lineages of Prochlorococcus that exploit the surface mixed layer niche were also the most sensitive to HOOH. The genomic streamlining of these evolved lineages during adaptation to the high-light exposed upper euphotic zone thus appears to be coincident with an acquired dependency on the extant HOOH-consuming community. These results underscore the importance of (indirect) biotic interactions in establishing niche boundaries, and highlight the impacts that community-level responses to stress may have in the ecological and evolutionary outcomes for co-existing species.
PMCID: PMC3033426  PMID: 21304826
3.  Facilitation of Robust Growth of Prochlorococcus Colonies and Dilute Liquid Cultures by “Helper” Heterotrophic Bacteria▿  
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  2008;74(14):4530-4534.
Axenic (pure) cultures of marine unicellular cyanobacteria of the Prochlorococcus genus grow efficiently only if the inoculation concentration is large; colonies form on semisolid medium at low efficiencies. In this work, we describe a novel method for growing Prochlorococcus colonies on semisolid agar that improves the level of recovery to approximately 100%. Prochlorococcus grows robustly at low cell concentrations, in liquid or on solid medium, when cocultured with marine heterotrophic bacteria. Once the Prochlorococcus cell concentration surpasses a critical threshold, the “helper” heterotrophs can be eliminated with antibiotics to produce axenic cultures. Our preliminary evidence suggests that one mechanism by which the heterotrophs help Prochlorococcus is the reduction of oxidative stress.
PMCID: PMC2493173  PMID: 18502916

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