One gene, multiple ecological strategies: A biofilm regulator is a capacitor for sustainable diversity

Eisha Mhatre, Daniel J. Snyder, Emily Sileo, Caroline B. Turner, Sean W. Buskirk, Nicolas L. Fernandez, Matthew B. Neiditch, Christopher M. Waters, Vaughn S. Cooper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Many bacteria cycle between sessile and motile forms in which they must sense and respond to internal and external signals to coordinate appropriate physiology. Maintaining fitness requires genetic networks that have been honed in variable environments to integrate these signals. The identity of the major regulators and how their control mechanisms evolved remain largely unknown in most organisms. During four different evolution experiments with the opportunist betaproteobacterium Burkholderia cenocepacia in a biofilm model, mutations were most frequently selected in the conserved gene rpfR. RpfR uniquely integrates two major signaling systems—quorum sensing and the motile–sessile switch mediated by cyclic-di-GMP—by two domains that sense, respond to, and control the synthesis of the autoinducer cis-2-dodecenoic acid (BDSF). The BDSF response in turn regulates the activity of diguanylate cyclase and phosphodiesterase domains acting on cyclic-di-GMP. Parallel adaptive substitutions evolved in each of these domains to produce unique life history strategies by regulating cyclic-di-GMP levels, global transcriptional responses, biofilm production, and polysaccharide composition. These phenotypes translated into distinct ecology and biofilm structures that enabled mutants to coexist and produce more biomass than expected from their constituents grown alone. This study shows that when bacterial populations are selected in environments challenging the limits of their plasticity, the evolved mutations not only alter genes at the nexus of signaling networks but also reveal the scope of their regulatory functions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)21647-21657
Number of pages11
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number35
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Biofilm
  • Burkholderia
  • Cyclic-di-GMP
  • Diversification
  • Evolution
  • Experimenta


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