Effective polyploidy causes phenotypic delay and influences bacterial evolvability

  • Lei Sun (Creator)
  • Helen Alexander (Creator)
  • Balazs Bogos (Creator)
  • Daniel J. Kiviet (Creator)
  • Martin Ackermann (Creator)
  • Sebastian Bonhoeffer (Creator)



Whether mutations in bacteria exhibit a noticeable delay before expressing their corresponding mutant phenotype was discussed intensively in the 1940s to 1950s, but the discussion eventually waned for lack of supportive evidence and perceived incompatibility with observed mutant distributions in fluctuation tests. Phenotypic delay in bacteria is widely assumed to be negligible, despite the lack of direct evidence. Here, we revisited the question using recombineering to introduce antibiotic resistance mutations into E. coli at defined time points and then tracking expression of the corresponding mutant phenotype over time. Contrary to previous assumptions, we found a substantial median phenotypic delay of three to four generations. We provided evidence that the primary source of this delay is multifork replication causing cells to be effectively polyploid, whereby wild-type gene copies transiently mask the phenotype of recessive mutant gene copies in the same cell. Using modeling and simulation methods, we explored the consequences of effective polyploidy for mutation rate estimation by fluctuation tests and sequencing-based methods. For recessive mutations, despite the substantial phenotypic delay, the per-copy or per-genome mutation rate is accurately estimated. However, the per-cell rate cannot be estimated by existing methods. Finally, with a mathematical model, we showed that effective polyploidy increases the frequency of costly recessive mutations in the standing genetic variation (SGV), and thus their potential contribution to evolutionary adaptation, while drastically reducing the chance that de novo recessive mutations can rescue populations facing a harsh environmental change such as antibiotic treatment. Overall, we have identified phenotypic delay and effective polyploidy as previously overlooked but essential components in bacterial evolvability, including antibiotic resistance evolution.

Data Citation

Sun, Lei et al. (2019), Data from: Effective polyploidy causes phenotypic delay and influences bacterial evolvability, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.8723t
Date made available19 Feb 2019

Cite this