'Rock-paper-scissors' preserves biodiversity in bacterial neighborhoods

The hand game of "rock-paper-scissors" is perpetual one-upmanship: rock crushes scissors, scissors cut paper and paper covers rock. In the July 11 issue of the journal Nature, researchers at Stanford and Yale report that certain bacteria can play their own version of that game. Populations chase each other around the petri dish in a set of incessant skirmishes that lack a clear victor but conserve biodiversity of the overall ecosystem. But biodiversity breaks down in the uniform environment of a well-mixed flask - demonstrating that spatial separation may be necessary for different populations to coexist.

"The scale at which organisms interact and disperse can have profound effects on the maintenance of biodiversity," says co-author Brendan Bohannan, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Stanford. "Organisms exist in neighborhoods in nature, and historically that's been overlooked by many ecologists. And the fact that they exist in neighborhoods has profound implications for the maintenance of biodiversity."

Other authors of the Nature paper are biological sciences graduate student Benjamin Kerr and Professor Marcus Feldman, both of Stanford, and Associate Professor Margaret Riley of Yale, who spent her sabbatical at Stanford from 1999 to 2000. Feldman, the Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, is a theoretical biologist. Bohannan is interested in both theoretical and experimental aspects of microbial ecology, and Riley is a microbiologist interested in ecology and evolution. Kerr brought this group together, creating computer simulations with Feldman and Bohannan to explore these ideas theoretically and developing microbial systems with Bohannan and Riley to test these ideas experimentally.

The researchers worked with three populations of the world's best-studied bacterium, Escherichia coli. One population carries a natural genetic element (called a plasmid) that serves as the bl

Contact: Dawn Levy
Stanford University

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