Adaptation through genetic time travel? Fluctuating selection can drive the evolution of bacterial transformation

Jan Engelstädter, Danesh Moradigaravand


Natural transformation is a process whereby bacteria actively take up DNA from the surrounding environment and incorporate it into their genome. Natural transformation is widespread in bacteria, but its evolutionary significance is still debated. Here, we hypothesize that transformation may confer a fitness advantage in changing environments through a process we term ‘genetic time travel’: by taking up old genes that were retained in the environment, the bacteria may revert to a past genotypic state that proves advantageous in the present or a future environment. We scrutinize our hypothesis by means of a mathematical model involving two bacterial types (transforming and non-transforming), a single locus under natural selection and a free DNA pool. The two bacterial types were competed in environments with changing selection regimes. We demonstrate that for a wide range of parameter values for the DNA turnover rate, the transformation rate and the frequency of environmental change, the transforming type outcompetes the non-transforming type. We discuss the empirical plausibility of our hypothesis, as well as its relationship to other hypotheses for the evolution of transformation in bacteria and sex more generally, speculating that ‘genetic time travel’ may also be relevant in eukaryotes that undergo horizontal gene transfer.

  • Received October 4, 2013.
  • Accepted November 1, 2013.
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