Testing for the fitness benefits of natural transformation during community-embedded evolution
Natural transformation is a process where bacteria actively take up DNA from the environment and recombine it into their genome or reconvert it into extra-chromosomal genetic elements. The evolutionary benefits of transformation are still under debate. One main explanation is that foreign allele and gene uptake facilitates natural selection by increasing genetic variation, analogous to meiotic sex. However, previous experimental evolution studies comparing fitness gains of evolved transforming- and isogenic non-transforming strains have yielded mixed support for the ‘sex hypothesis.’ Previous studies testing the sex hypothesis for natural transformation have largely ignored species interactions, which theory predicts provide conditions favourable to sex. To test for the adaptive benefits of bacterial transformation, the naturally transformable wild-type Acinetobacter baylyi and a transformation-deficient ∆comA mutant were evolved for 5weeks. To provide strong and potentially fluctuating selection, A. baylyi was embedded in a community of five other bacterial species. DNA from a pool of different Acinetobacter strains was provided as a substrate for transformation. No effect of transformation ability on the fitness of evolved populations was found, with fitness increasing non-significantly in most treatments. Populations showed fitness improvement in their respective environments, with no apparent costs of adaptation to competing species. Despite the absence of fitness effects of transformation, wild-type populations evolved variable transformation frequencies that were slightly greater than their ancestor which potentially could be caused by genetic drift.