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This article has been peer reviewed and is published in BMC Evolutionary Biology Volume 9, Issue 1, 2009, Article number 241. The published version is available at DOI: 10.1186/1471-2148-9-241. Copyright © BioMed Central Ltd.


BACKGROUND: Bacterial biofilm is ubiquitous in nature. However, it is not clear how this crowded habitat would impact the evolution of bacteriophage (phage) life history traits. In this study, we constructed isogenic lambda phage strains that only differed in their adsorption rates, because of the presence/absence of extra side tail fibers or improved tail fiber J, and maker states. The high cell density and viscosity of the biofilm environment was approximated by the standard double-layer agar plate. The phage infection cycle in the biofilm environment was decomposed into three stages: settlement on to the biofilm surface, production of phage progeny inside the biofilm, and emigration of phage progeny out of the current focus of infection.

RESULTS: We found that in all cases high adsorption rate is beneficial for phage settlement, but detrimental to phage production (in terms of plaque size and productivity) and emigration out of the current plaque. Overall, the advantage of high adsorption accrued during settlement is more than offset by the disadvantages experienced during the production and emigration stages. The advantage of low adsorption rate was further demonstrated by the rapid emergence of low-adsorption mutant from a high-adsorption phage strain with the side tail fibers. DNA sequencing showed that 19 out of the 21 independent mutant clones have mutations in the stf gene, with the majority of them being single-nucleotide insertion/deletion mutations occurring in regions with homonucleotide runs.

CONCLUSION: We conclude that high mutation rate of the stf gene would ensure the existence of side tail fiber polymorphism, thus contributing to rapid adaptation of the phage population between diametrically different habitats of benthic biofilm and planktonic liquid culture. Such adaptability would also help to explain the maintenance of the stf gene in phage lambda's genome.

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