Bilateral BBSRC-FAPESP: A genome wide view of the evolutionary processes shaping genetic variation in natural populations

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Genetics Evolution and Environment


The Darwinian idea of 'survival of the fittest' is central to our understanding of the diversity of life on this planet. However, if only the fittest survive and reproduce, then why do we see so much variation among individuals in traits that are tied to fitness? This problem is especially striking in social systems where cooperating individuals perform some sort of costly act that helps others. Cooperative behaviour therefore has important effects on the fitness of individuals and those that they interact with (often their relatives). Furthermore, cooperating individuals run the risk of invasion by disruptive cheaters that reap the benefits of cooperative behaviours, but do not pay their fair share of the cost. In such situations, we would expect the 'best' strategy to emerge: either cheating or cooperating. Surprisingly, however, studies of natural populations often reveal variation in the degree to which individuals appear to cooperate and cheat. If either cheating or cooperating is the better strategy, then why is there variation along a cooperator-cheater continuum?

To better understand this problem, we believe that it is important to not only describe the nature of the variation that is actually present in populations, but also the genes that generate this variation and the processes shaping their variation. This is because, although evolutionary theory may suggest the best strategy, the genetic changes required may not be possible. For example, some strategies may not exist because any gains may be offset by other fitness costs. Alternatively, cooperative traits may be expressed rarely, or there may be limited opportunities to cheat, and as a result the action of Darwinian selection may simply be too inefficient to mould variation to achieve the optimal or favoured strategy.

We propose to address this fundamental question using a simple system for the study of cooperative behaviour, the soil dwelling social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum. Under favourable conditions, D. discoideum amoebae exist as single celled individuals that grow and divide by feeding on bacteria. Upon starvation, however, up to 100,000 amoebae aggregate and cooperate to make a multicellular fruiting body consisting of hardy spores supported by dead stalk cells. Stalk cells thus sacrifice themselves to help the dispersal of spores. Such sacrifices can be favoured because they typically help relatives, but when non-relatives interact, the sacrifices of an individual may help non-relatives. Crucially, like other systems, we have discovered that D. discoideum show enormous diversity in a wide array of traits, including the degree to which different individuals cooperate, thus providing us with a simple system to investigate why such variation exists.

To achieve this goal, we will employ a novel combination of approaches in D. discoideum that allow the genetics and evolution of cooperative behaviour and other traits to be analysed with great power. We will use a large panel of naturally occurring strains to identify natural variation in genes that account for the diversity in the traits we observe. We will characterize the types of genes that produce natural diversity in social traits and ask whether those genes also affect other types of non-social traits, which could suggest that they are constrained or shaped by non-social processes. We will be able to determine the types of evolutionary processes that appear to be responsible for the maintenance or persistence of variation in populations. Finally, we will integrate these results with models of evolution to develop a better theoretical understanding of how genetic diversity is maintained and evolutionary outcomes constrained. This work will therefore lead to a fundamental advance in our understanding of the types of variation underlying phenotypic diversity in natural populations and the evolutionary processes shaping that variation.

Technical Summary

Explaining why so much natural genetic variation exists in fitness related traits is a fundamental problem in evolutionary genetics. Many competing explanations have been proposed, but cleanly distinguishing between them experimentally has been challenging. For example, we find surprisingly high genetic variation in key fitness related social behaviour traits across a huge diversity of taxa, despite a general expectation that variation will be removed by selection. To understand the processes shaping such variation we will employ a novel combination of approaches to dissect the genetics and evolution of social and non-social traits using the social amoeba D. discoideum (Dd). The Dd system provides a uniquely powerful model to dissect the processes shaping genetic diversity in a natural microbial population, while providing critical insights into how the genomes of more complex species are shaped by evolution. Specifically, we will employ a powerful integration of computational, genomic and experimental approaches to: 1) identify and characterize genes that produce natural diversity in social and non-social traits, 2) experimentally validate the causal role of natural genetic variants using cutting edge molecular techniques, 3) test whether the same genes affect both social and non-social traits, suggesting that they are constrained and their joint evolution is shaped by pleiotropy, and 4) determine the evolutionary processes that have shaped variation in this system. Together, these objectives will lead to fundamental advances in our understanding of the types of variation underlying phenotypic diversity in natural populations and the evolutionary processes shaping that variation. It will also provide significant long-term benefits to the research community through the establishment of a core reference panel, opening entirely new avenues of investigation into the genetic basis of any trait, and thus ensuring the legacy of this project.

Planned Impact

1. Beneficiaries:
Academic community: This project targets a central question in evolutionary genetics: the evolution and maintenance of variation within natural populations. The academic community of geneticists and evolutionary biologists will be primary beneficiaries. However, the interdisciplinary nature of the work means it will build unifying concepts, drawing together developmental biology, evolutionary biology and genetics. Furthermore, this work will provide a rich dataset and important resource that can be used in future work by researchers across research areas. These researchers can use these same strains in other studies, taking advantage of the genomic and phenotypic data we will have produced and made public, and increasing the long-term impact of this study.

Enhancing International Collaboration: Our Pathways to Impact will strengthen UK science by strengthening collaborative links with the Brazilian partners in São Paulo. This link will enhance the connection between UK funded science through RCUK and the state of São Paulo through FAPESP. FAPESP has worked together with our British institutions to foster collaborations, including the seed funding that launched the collaboration between Wolf and de Brito, The addition of more groups to this collaboration will increase its value..

General Public: The evolution and maintenance of variation within natural populations fascinates the general public. Moreover, our study focus, cooperation and cheating, captures the attention of the general public. Our work has been highlighted by the popular media and used extensively in outreach programmes in the past, and we expect that understanding the evolutionary processes shaping these sorts of behaviours in natural populations should continue to generate interest with this wider audience.

2. Implementation:
Dissemination: To reach the academic beneficiaries we will submit our results to high impact journals and ensure they are made open access. We will also work with our local media offices to maximize exposure in the popular press and continue our regular attendance at national and international scientific meetings and workshops

Research training: We will train the PDRAs and technician in cutting edge molecular genetic and quantitative skills such as maximum likelihood mixed modelling, computer simulation, analytical modelling and data manipulation. The technician will be trained in experimental design and management of large projects.

Advanced training resources:
A) Evolutionary computational genetics course: We will generate impact and added value through educational resources in evolutionary population genetics. To achieve this goal, we will deliver a three day short course at the University of Bath targeted at evolutionary biologists. The course will include computer lab components focused on analysis and simulation approaches. We will also deliver an expanded version of this course to contribute to the development of the academic community in Brazil, where research in evolutionary population and quantitative genetics is an emerging discipline. This will maximize the value of the RCUK-FAPESP joint funding by providing direct impact in both research communities. Our long term goal is to establish this course in the state of São Paulo, providing high calibre training to arguably the largest concentration of evolutionary geneticists in a developing economy.

B) Online resources: To maintain the long-term impact of these educational resources, we will package them as an online course, with the content coordinated with video and printable resources.

Community outreach: We will work with the University of Bath, University of Manchester, and Federal University of São Carlos to provide outputs to the general media. To improve our outreach the PDRAs will participate in the Royal Society Communication Skills and Media Skills Training courses (which are combined into a two day residential course).


10 25 50

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
BB/M007146/1 01/08/2015 31/08/2017 £381,056
BB/M007146/2 Transfer BB/M007146/1 01/09/2017 31/12/2018 £141,911
Description The goal of this proposal was to use a unique combination of modelling, experimentation and next generation sequencing to understand the forces that shape the genes underlying social behaviour. To date, we have published two outputs (Gruenheit et al, Nature Communications, 2017 and Madgwick et al, PNAS, 2018) and are about to submit two more papers that largely arose from work carried out in the first two years of the project. Together, these published studies illustrate the power of the approaches we outlined in the original proposal. We are now poised to capitalise and extend this published work through the identification of new genes associated with different aspects of social behaviour using GWAS approaches. However, these studies will require additional proposed goals to be completed. Most importantly, these include sequencing an increased number of strains, completion of high content phenotyping, GWAS analyses, and validation of gene associations in the laboratory. Completion of these aims will not only have an immediate impact on our own work, but will have wider impact as it will result in the provision of a genomic resource for the wider scientific community.
Exploitation Route These finding represent a new way of looking at the stabilisation of cooperation
Sectors Education,Environment,Healthcare

Title Dictyostelium strains and plasmids 
Description Dictyostelium strains and plasmids which will be used to study P2X receptor function 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Year Produced 2011 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact New ways to think about P2X receptor regulataion 
Title next generation sequencing of Dictyostelium natural isolates 
Description collection of natural isolates that have been sequenced 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact none yet 
Title Natural strain sequence database 
Description Whole genome sequence from up to 1000 starins 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact publication of one paper in current biology, and papers to be submitted 
Description Baylor college of medicine 
Organisation Baylor College of Medicine
Department Department of Molecular and Human Genetics
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provision of materials
Collaborator Contribution Advice and expertise on next generation sequencing and bioinformatics
Impact Publications, training
Description Brazil partnership 
Organisation Federal University of Sao Carlos
Country Brazil 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Partnership with Brazilian groups (Sao Paulo) who are sequencing geographically distant species. We have provided the strains for gDNA preparation
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in long read assembly
Impact Multidisciplinary - computational biology and molecular genetics
Start Year 2015
Description Studies of social behaviour 
Organisation University of Bath
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We provided Dictyostelium expertise and socio-biology expertise
Collaborator Contribution They have provided mathematical and theoretical ideas to our socio-biological research
Impact Publication PMID: 19631539 Dissemination: Guardian article, BBC Three Counties Radio interview NERC Project grant NE/H020322/1 awarded July 2010 Publication PMID: 20546090
Start Year 2006
Description genetics of socio biology 
Organisation Baylor College of Medicine
Country United States 
Sector Hospitals 
PI Contribution We instigated the project during my time at Baylor College of medicine. The experimental design, conclusions and manuscript preparation were all contributed to by us
Collaborator Contribution New ideas and research directions
Impact PMID: 18272966