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Mild environmental stress elicits mutations affecting fitness in Chlamydomonas

Shaun Goho, Graham Bell


Cultures of Chlamydomonas were exposed to a range of relatively mild stresses for a period of 24 h. These stresses comprised high and low temperatures, osmotic stress, low pH, starvation and toxic stress. They were then allowed to recuperate for around ten vegetative generations under near–optimal conditions in unmodified minimal medium. Fitness was then assayed as the rate of division of isolated cells on agar. We found that there was a strong tendency for stressed cultures to have lower mean fitness and greater standardized variance in fitness than the negative controls which had been cultured throughout in unmodified minimal medium. The same tendency was shown, as expected, by positive controls which received mutagenic doses of ultraviolet irradiation. We concluded that the most reasonable interpretation of these observations is that mild stress increases the genomic rate of mutation. This appears to be the first time that this phenomenon has been noticed in eukaryotes. The response might be adaptive because lineages in which higher mutation rates are elicited by stress can be favourably selected through the production of a few mutants which are fortuitously well adapted to the stressful environment. Other interpretations are not excluded, however. Regardless of the mechanism involved, the elevation of mutation rates under stress will affect the rate of evolutionary response to environmental change and also the maintenance of sexuality.

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