Genetically-based social behaviors are subject to evolutionary change in response to natural selection. Numerous microbial systems provide not only the opportunity to understand the genetic mechanisms underlying specific social interactions, but also to observe evolutionary changes in sociality over short time periods. Here we summarize experiments in which behaviors of the social bacterium Myxococcus xanthus changed extensively during evolutionary adaptation to two relatively asocial laboratory environments. M. xanthus moves cooperatively, exhibits cooperative multicellular development upon starvation and also appears to prey cooperatively on other bacteria. Replicate populations of M. xanthus were evolved in both structured (agar plate) and unstructured (liquid) environments that contained abundant resources. The importance of social cooperation for evolutionary fitness in these habitats was limited by the absence of positive selection for starvation-induced spore production or predatory efficiency. Evolved populations showed major losses in all measured categories of social proficiency- motility, predation, fruiting ability, and sporulation. Moreover, several evolved genotypes were observed to exploit the social behavior of their ancestral parent when mixed together during the developmental process. These experiments that resulted in both socially defective and socially exploitative genotypes demonstrate the power of laboratory selection experiments for studying social evolution at the microbial level. Results from additional selection experiments that place positive selection pressure on social phenotypes can be integrated with direct study of natural populations to increase our understanding of principles that underlie the evolution of microbial social behavior.
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Velicer, G.J., Stredwick, K.L. Experimental social evolution with Myxococcus xanthus . Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek 81, 155 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1020546130033