smith (2012) Tragedy of the commons among antibiotic resistance plasmids. Evolution. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2011.01531.x | Early view at Evolution
Abstract: As social interactions are increasingly recognized as important determinants of microbial fitness, sociobiology is being enlisted to better understand the evolution of clinically relevant microbes and, potentially, to influence their evolution to aid human health. Of special interest are situations in which there exists a “tragedy of the commons,” where natural selection leads to a net reduction in fitness for all members of a population. Here, I demonstrate the existence of a tragedy of the commons among antibiotic resistance plasmids of bacteria. In serial transfer culture, plasmids evolved a greater ability to superinfect already-infected bacteria, increasing plasmid fitness when evolved genotypes were rare. Evolved plasmids, however, fell victim to their own success, reducing the density of their bacterial hosts when they became common and suffering reduced fitness through vertical transmission. Social interactions can thus be an important determinant of evolution for the molecular endosymbionts of bacteria. These results also identify an avenue of evolution that reduces proliferation of both antibiotic resistance genes and their bacterial hosts.