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Intermediate Levels of Antibiotics May Increase Diversity of Colony Size Phenotype in Bacteria.


Antibiotics select for resistant bacteria whose existence and emergence is more likely in populations with high phenotypic and genetic diversity. Identifying the mechanisms that generate this diversity can thus have clinical consequences for drug-resistant pathogens. We show here that intermediate levels of antibiotics are associated with higher levels of phenotypic diversity in size of colony forming units (cfus), within a single bacterial population. We examine experimentally thousands of populations of bacteria subjected to different disturbance levels that are created by varying antibiotic concentrations. Based on colony sizes, we find that intermediate levels of antibiotics always result in the highest phenotypic variation of this trait. This result is supported across bacterial densities and in the presence of three different antibiotics with two different mechanisms of action. Our results suggest intermediate levels of a stressor (as opposed to very low or very high levels) could affect the phenotypic diversity of a population, at least with regards to the single trait measured here. While this study is limited to a single phenotypic trait within a single species, the results suggest examining phenotypic and genetic variation created by disturbances and stressors could be a promising way to understand and limit variation in pathogens.

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