Each of 3,323 metabolic innovations in the evolution of E. coli arose through the horizontal transfer of a single DNA segment.

Research paper by Tin Yau TY Pang, Martin J MJ Lercher

Indexed on: 20 Dec '18Published on: 20 Dec '18Published in: PNAS


Even closely related prokaryotes often show an astounding diversity in their ability to grow in different nutritional environments. It has been hypothesized that complex metabolic adaptations-those requiring the independent acquisition of multiple new genes-can evolve via selectively neutral intermediates. However, it is unclear whether this neutral exploration of phenotype space occurs in nature, or what fraction of metabolic adaptations is indeed complex. Here, we reconstruct metabolic models for the ancestors of a phylogeny of 53 strains, linking genotypes to phenotypes on a genome-wide, macroevolutionary scale. Based on the ancestral and extant metabolic models, we identify 3,323 phenotypic innovations in the history of the clade that arose through changes in accessory genome content. Of these innovations, 1,998 allow growth in previously inaccessible environments, while 1,325 increase biomass yield. Strikingly, every observed innovation arose through the horizontal acquisition of a single DNA segment less than 30 kb long. Although we found no evidence for the contribution of selectively neutral processes, 10.6% of metabolic innovations were facilitated by horizontal gene transfers on earlier phylogenetic branches, consistent with a stepwise adaptation to successive environments. Ninety-eight percent of metabolic phenotypes accessible to the combined pangenome can be bestowed on any individual strain by transferring a single DNA segment from one of the extant strains. These results demonstrate an amazing ability of the lineage to adapt to novel environments through single horizontal gene transfers (followed by regulatory adaptations), an ability likely mirrored in other clades of generalist bacteria.