Background: Previously, we showed that adaptive substitutions in one of the three promoters of the bacteriophage phiX174 improved fitness at high-temperature by decreasing transcript levels three- to four-fold. To understand how such an extreme change in gene expression might lead to an almost two-fold increase in fitness at the adaptive temperature, we focused on stages in the life cycle of the phage that occur before and after the initiation of transcription. For both the ancestral strain and two single-substitution strains with down-regulated transcription, we measured seven phenotypic components of fitness (attachment, ejection, eclipse, virion assembly, latent period, lysis rate and burst size) during a single cycle of infection at each of two temperatures. The lower temperature, 37°C, is the optimal temperature at which phages are cultivated in the lab; the higher temperature, 42°C, exerts strong selection and is the condition under which these substitutions arose in evolution experiments. We augmented this study by developing an individual-based stochastic model of this same life cycle to explore potential explanations for our empirical results.
Results: Of the seven fitness parameters, three showed significant differences between strains that carried an adaptive substitution and the ancestor, indicating the presence of pleiotropy in regulatory evolution. 1) Eclipse was longer in the adaptive strains at both the optimal and high-temperature environments. 2) Lysis rate was greater in the adaptive strains at the high temperature. 3) Burst size for the mutants was double that of the ancestor at the high temperature, but half that at the lower temperature. Simulation results suggest that eclipse length and latent period variance can explain differences in burst sizes and fitness between the mutant and ancestral strains.
Conclusions: Down-regulating transcription affects several steps in the phage life cycle, and all of these occur after the initiation of transcription. We attribute the apparent tradeoff between delayed progeny production and faster progeny release to improved host resource utilization at high temperature.