This article is part of the supplement: Proceedings of the 10th Symposium on Lactic Acid Bacterium

Open Access Proceedings

The evolutionary emergence of stochastic phenotype switching in bacteria

Paul B Rainey12*, Hubertus JE Beaumont3, Gayle C Ferguson1, Jenna Gallie4, Christian Kost5, Eric Libby1 and Xue-Xian Zhang1

Author Affiliations

1 New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study and Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology & Evolution, Massey University at Albany, Auckland, New Zealand

2 Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, Plön, Germany

3 Delft University of Technology, Kavli Institute of Nanoscience, Department of Bionanoscience, Delft, The Netherlands

4 Department of Biology, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

5 Department of Bioorganic Chemistry, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena, Germany

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Microbial Cell Factories 2011, 10(Suppl 1):S14  doi:10.1186/1475-2859-10-S1-S14

Published: 30 August 2011


Stochastic phenotype switching – or bet hedging – is a pervasive feature of living systems and common in bacteria that experience fluctuating (unpredictable) environmental conditions. Under such conditions, the capacity to generate variable offspring spreads the risk of being maladapted in the present environment, against offspring likely to have some chance of survival in the future. While a rich subject for theoretical studies, little is known about the selective causes responsible for the evolutionary emergence of stochastic phenotype switching. Here we review recent work – both theoretical and experimental – that sheds light on ecological factors that favour switching types over non-switching types. Of particular relevance is an experiment that provided evidence for an adaptive origin of stochastic phenotype switching by subjecting bacterial populations to a selective regime that mimicked essential features of the host immune response. Central to the emergence of switching types was frequent imposition of ‘exclusion rules’ and ‘population bottlenecks’ – two complementary faces of frequency dependent selection. While features of the immune response, exclusion rules and bottlenecks are likely to operate in many natural environments. Together these factors define a set of selective conditions relevant to the evolution of stochastic switching, including antigenic variation and bacterial persistence.