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Published (as Chapter 22) in P. H. Rampelotto (ed.), Biotechnology of Extremophiles, Grand Challenges in Biology and Biotechnology 1, pp. 619–636. DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-13521-2_22


Copyright © 2016 Springer International Publishing Switzerland. Used by permission.


Experimental microbial evolutions (EME) involves studying closely a microbial population after it has been through a large number of generations under controlled conditions (Kussell 2013). Adaptive laboratory evolution (ALE) selects for fitness under experimentally imposed conditions (Bennett and Hughes 2009; Dragosits and Mattanovich 2013). However, experimental evolution studies focusing on the contributions of genetic drift and natural mutation rates to evolution are conducted under non-selective conditions to avoid changes imposed by selection (Hindré et al. 2012).

To understand the application of experimental evolutionary methods to extremophiles it is essential to consider the recent growth in this field over the last decade using model non-extremophilic microorganisms. This growth reflects both a greater appreciation of the power of experimental evolution for testing evolutionary hypotheses and, especially recently, the new power of genomic methods for analyzing changes in experimentally evolved lineages. Since many crucial processes are driven by microorganisms in nature, it is essential to understand and appreciate how microbial communities function, particularly with relevance to selection. However, many theories developed to understand microbial ecological patterns focus on the distribution and the structure of diversity within a microbial population comprised of single species (Prosser et al. 2007). Therefore an understanding of the concept of species is needed. A common definition of species using a genetic concept is a group of interbreeding individuals that is isolated from other such groups by barriers of recombination (Prosser et al. 2007). An alternative ecological species concept defines a species as set of individuals that can be considered identical in all relevant ecological traits (Cohan 2001). This is particularly important because of the abundance and deep phylogenetic complexity of microbial communities. Cohan postulated that “bacteria occupy discrete niches and that periodic selection will purge genetic variation within each niche without preventing divergence between the inhabitants of different niches”. The importance of gene exchange mechanisms likely in bacteria and archaea and therefore extremophiles, arises from the fact that their genomes are divided into two distinct parts, the core genome and the accessory genome (Cohan 2001). The core genome consists of genes that are crucial for the functioning of an organism and the accessory genome consists of genes that are capable of adapting to the changing ecosystem through gain and loss of function. Strains that belong to the same species can differ in the composition of accessory genes and therefore their capability to adapt to changing ecosystems (Cohan 2001; Tettelin et al. 2005; Gill et al. 2005). Additional ecological diversity exists in plasmids, transposons and pathogenicity islands as they can be easily shared in a favorable environment but still be absent in the same species found elsewhere (Wertz et al. 2003). This poses a major challenge for studying ALE and community microbial ecology indicating a continued need to develop a fitting theory that connects the fluid nature of microbial communities to their ecology (Wertz et al. 2003; Coleman et al. 2006). Understanding the nature and contribution of different processes that determine the frequencies of genes in any population is the biggest concern in population and evolutionary genetics (Prosser et al. 2007) and it is critical for an understanding of experimental evolution.

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