Resource competition and social conflict in experimental populations of yeast


Understanding the conditions that promote the maintenance of cooperation is a classic problem in evolutionary biology1,2,3,4,5. The essence of this dilemma is captured by the ‘tragedy of the commons’6: how can a group of individuals that exploit resources in a cooperative manner resist invasion by ‘cheaters’ who selfishly use common resources to maximize their individual reproduction at the expense of the group7,8? Here, we investigate this conflict through experimental competitions between isogenic cheater and cooperator strains of yeast with alternative pathways of glucose metabolism9, and by using mathematical models of microbial biochemistry10. We show that both coexistence and competitive exclusion are possible outcomes of this conflict, depending on the spatial and temporal structure of the environment. Both of these outcomes are driven by trade-offs between the rate and efficiency of conversion of resources into offspring that are mediated by metabolic intermediates.

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Figure 1: Seasonal competition between cooperators and cheaters.
Figure 2: Modelling competition between cheaters and cooperators.
Figure 3: Toxic metabolic intermediates create a cost of cheating.
Figure 4: Competition in a spatially heterogeneous environment.


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This project was funded by grants from NERC to the Center for Population Biology. I. Gudelj was supported by a NERC-EMS Fellowship. The authors would like to thank C. Godfray for comments and C. Brandon for technical assistance. Author Contributions R.C.M. carried out experimental work and wrote the manuscript. I.G. carried out mathematical modelling.

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Correspondence to R. Craig MacLean.

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Supplementary Notes

Supplementary Notes nature04672-s1.pdf This file contains Supplementary Figure 1, Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary Note 1 and Supplementary Equation 1. (PDF 145 kb)

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MacLean, R., Gudelj, I. Resource competition and social conflict in experimental populations of yeast. Nature 441, 498–501 (2006).

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