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Gene expression noise can promote the fixation of beneficial mutations in fluctuating environments

by Michael Schmutzer, Andreas Wagner

Nongenetic phenotypic variation can either speed up or slow down adaptive evolution. We show that it can speed up evolution in environments where available carbon and energy sources change over time. To this end, we use an experimentally validated model of Escherichia coli growth on two alternative carbon sources, glucose and acetate. On the superior carbon source (glucose), all cells achieve high growth rates, while on the inferior carbon source (acetate) only a small fraction of the population manages to initiate growth. Consequently, populations experience a bottleneck when the environment changes from the superior to the inferior carbon source. Growth on the inferior carbon source depends on a circuit under the control of a transcription factor that is repressed in the presence of the superior carbon source. We show that noise in the expression of this transcription factor can increase the probability that cells start growing on the inferior carbon source. In doing so, it can decrease the severity of the bottleneck and increase mean population fitness whenever this fitness is low. A modest amount of noise can also enhance the fitness effects of a beneficial allele that increases the fraction of a population initiating growth on acetate. Additionally, noise can protect this allele from extinction, accelerate its spread, and increase its likelihood of going to fixation. Central to the adaptation-enhancing principle we identify is the ability of noise to mitigate population bottlenecks, particularly in environments that fluctuate periodically. Because such bottlenecks are frequent in fluctuating environments, and because periodically fluctuating environments themselves are common, this principle may apply to a broad range of environments and organisms.

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