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Be Good, For Adaptation’s Sake

December 17, 2012

You may never have herded cows. But in one way or another, you’ve certainly experienced the tragedy of the commons.

When herders get away with cheating, everyone loses. The same thing is often true for yeast.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

This happens when a village shares a pasture that can only feed a certain number of cows. For the system to work, everyone has to cooperate and keep the total number of cows under that limit. But inevitably, one cheater comes along and adds extra cows to his herd. At no immediate cost to himself, he gets all the benefits of the extra cows. But then tragedy kicks in as the pasture is overgrazed until no one can have any cows.

This doesn’t just happen out in the village. We can see it in the overfishing of the oceans, the production of carbon dioxide contributing to global warming, the milking of investors on Wall Street, and many other aspects of modern life. But perhaps surprisingly, we can even see it in cultures of the humble yeast S. cerevisiae.

In a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Waite and Shou set up a yeast system to look at the factors influencing the tragedy of the commons. In human society, sometimes cheaters cause a collapse, but other times, cooperators get together and exile the cheaters from the village. You might think that since yeast aren’t quite as smart as humans, in yeast “society” the cheaters would always win. However, Waite and Shou found that sometimes the cheaters were marginalized or even driven out, and the cooperators thrived!

To do these experiments, the researchers set up a very clever pasture in miniature. They engineered three strains, each marked with a different-colored fluorescent marker so they could be distinguished from each other.

The two “cooperator” strains needed each other to survive on minimal medium: one required lysine and produced excess adenine, while the other required adenine and produced excess lysine. The “cheater” strain required lysine but it didn’t provide any nutrients. So the cheater needed one of the cooperators to survive, but didn’t contribute anything to the common good.

As we might expect, being cooperative has a cost. The generous production of extra nutrients made the cooperator grow slower than the otherwise identical cheater strain. So you would predict that if you mixed the cooperators and the cheater in equal numbers and grew them together, the cheater would take over and collapse the culture every time.

However, when the researchers mixed all three strains in a 1:1:1 ratio and grew lots of replicate cultures, they found that cheaters didn’t always prosper. Sometimes the nice guys finished first.

Of course some of the cultures did collapse under the influence of the rapacious cheaters. After a while these cultures stopped growing and turned out to be made up of mostly dead or dying cheater cells. The cheaters had taken over the culture, selfishly using up the lysine until eventually there was not enough to continue growing.

But unexpectedly, other replicate cultures were growing much faster, at rates similar to cultures without any cheaters. In these cultures, the two cooperator strains had either dominated the culture or even driven the cheaters extinct!

To explain this, the researchers proposed that the intense selection pressure led to an adaptive race between cooperators and cheaters. In surviving cultures, the rare cooperator with a small advantage had outcompeted the cheaters.

To confirm this, they took a close look at the winning cooperators. They found that the fitness advantage could be inherited, so they used whole-genome resequencing to find out why the cooperators were outcompeting the cheaters. They kept finding mutations in the same five genes.

These genes all made sense, as mutating them would help in an environment with limited amounts of lysine. For example, most of the mutations were found in ECM21 and DOA4. Both of these gene products are important in pathways that break down proteins like permeases. Knocking them out would keep the permeases around longer, making for better lysine uptake. But this newfound advantage did not come without a price.

Dogs playing cards

While cheating is usually a good short term strategy, it doesn’t always work out so well in the long term.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

The researchers tested directly whether the adaptive mutations improved growth in limiting amounts of lysine. Without exception, they did. But almost all these strains grew more slowly in abundant lysine than did their ancestor strains. That explains why these mutant strains only became a significant proportion of the population late in the life of the culture, when lysine levels were very low.

The same mutations can arise in both cooperators and cheaters, of course. But when cheaters become better at growing in low lysine levels, they just become that much better at making themselves extinct. When cooperators get better at growing in low lysine levels, they are better able to keep growing and keep the cheaters at bay.

So the take-home lesson is that cooperation does pay, after all. Especially in a constantly changing environment, cooperators can often win the adaptive race and squelch the cheaters. Maybe we should take a hint from little S. cerevisiae that being kind to each other is not only a nice thing to do, it’s in all of our best interests!