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Optimal Strategy for Competence Differentiation in Bacteria


A phylogenetically diverse subset of bacterial species are naturally competent for transformation by DNA. Transformation entails recombination of genes between different lineages, representing a form of bacterial sex that increases standing genetic variation. We first assess whether homologous recombination by transformation is favored by evolution. Using stochastic population genetic computer simulations in which beneficial and deleterious mutations occur at many loci throughout the whole genome, we find that transformation can increase both the rate of adaptive evolution and the equilibrium level of fitness. Secondly, motivated by experimental observations of Bacillus subtilis, we assume that competence additionally entails a weak persister phenotype, i.e., the rates of birth and death are reduced for these cells. Consequently, persisters evolve more slowly than non-persisters. We show via simulation that strains which stochastically switch into and out of the competent phenotype are evolutionarily favored over strains that express only a single phenotype. Our model's simplicity enables us to derive and numerically solve a system of finite- deterministic equations that describe the evolutionary dynamics. The observed tradeoff between the benefit of recombination and the cost of persistence may explain the previously mysterious observation that only a fractional subpopulation of B. subtilis cells express competence. More generally, this work demonstrates that population genetic forces can give rise to phenotypic diversity even in an unchanging and homogeneous environment.

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