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Developmental cheating in the social bacterium Myxococcus xanthus


Cheating is a potential problem in any social system that depends on cooperation and in which actions that benefit a group are costly to individuals that perform them1,2,3,4,5. Genetic mutants that fail to perform a group-beneficial function but that reap the benefits of belonging to the group should have a within-group selective advantage, provided that the mutants are not too common. Here we show that social cheating exists even among prokaryotes. The bacterium Myxococcus xanthus exhibits several social behaviours, including aggregation of cells into spore-producing fruiting bodies during starvation. We examined a number of M. xanthus genotypes that were defective for fruiting-body development, including several lines that evolved for 1,000 generations under asocial conditions6 and others carrying defined mutations in developmental pathways7,8,9,10, to determine whether they behaved as cheaters when mixed with their developmentally proficient progenitor. Clones from several evolved lines and two defined mutants exhibited cheating during development, being over-represented among resulting spores relative to their initial frequency in the mixture. The ease of finding anti-social behaviours suggests that cheaters may be common in natural populations of M. xanthus.

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Figure 1: Spore production for six independently evolved clones6 of M. xanthus and their common ancestor (DK1622).
Figure 2: Spore production of two evolved clones when mixed with their wild-type progenitor at nine initial ratios, and the corresponding relative sporulation efficiencies.
Figure 3: Spore production of mutants DK4312 (asgB) (a) and LS523 (csgA) (b), and their respective wild-type progenitors in pure and mixed culture.


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We thank A. Garza, L. Shimkets, M. Singer and J. Strassman for helpful discussion, A. Garza for providing strain MS2021, and N. Hajela and J. Jiang for technical assistance. This research was supported by Michigan State University and an NSF grant to R.E.L.

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Correspondence to Gregory J. Velicer.

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Velicer, G., Kroos, L. & Lenski, R. Developmental cheating in the social bacterium Myxococcus xanthus . Nature 404, 598–601 (2000).

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