First published 30 July 2014
More Bang For Your Buck: Quorum-Sensing Capabilities Improve the Efficacy of Suicidal Altruism
Anya Elaine Johnson, Eli Strauss, Rodney Pickett, Christoph Adami, Ian Dworkin, & Heather J. Goldsby
Within the context of evolution, an altruistic act that benefits the receiving individual at the expense of the acting individual is a puzzling phenomenon. An extreme form of altruism can be found in colicinogenic E. coli. These suicidal altruists explode, releasing colicins that kill unrelated individuals, which are not colicin resistant. By committing suicide, the altruist makes it more likely that its kin will have less competition. The benefits of this strategy rely on the number of competitors and kin nearby. If the organism explodes at an inopportune time, the suicidal act may not harm any competitors. Communication could enable organisms to act altruistically when environmental conditions suggest that that strategy would be most beneficial. Quorum sensing is a form of communication in which bacteria produce a protein and gauge the amount of that protein around them. Quorum sensing is one means by which bacteria sense the biotic factors around them and determine when to produce products, such as antibiotics, that influence competition. Suicidal altruists could use quorum sensing to determine when exploding is most beneficial, but it is challenging to study the selective forces at work in microbes. To address these challenges, we use digital evolution (a form of experimental evolution that uses self-replicating computer programs as organisms) to investigate the effects of enabling altruistic organisms to communicate via quorum sensing. We found that quorumsensing altruists killed a greater number of competitors per explosion, winning competitions against non-communicative altruists. These findings indicate that quorum sensing could increase the beneficial effect of altruism and the suite of conditions under which it will evolve.