Fitness benefits of low infectivity in a spatially structured population of bacteriophages

Roychoudhury P, Shrestha N, Wiss VR, Krone SM


For a parasite evolving in a spatially structured environment, an evolutionarily advantageous strategy may be to reduce its transmission rate or infectivity. We demonstrate this empirically using bacteriophage (phage) from an evolution experiment where spatial structure was maintained over 550 phage generations on agar plates. We found that a single substitution in the major capsid protein led to slower adsorption of phage to host cells with no change in lysis time or burst size. Plaques formed by phage isolates containing this mutation were not only larger but also contained more phage per unit area. Using a spatially explicit, individual-based model, we showed that when there is a trade-off between adsorption and diffusion (i.e. less ‘sticky’ phage diffuse further), slow adsorption can maximize plaque size, plaque density and overall productivity. These findings suggest that less infective pathogens may have an advantage in spatially structured populations, even when well-mixed models predict that they will not.