The evolution of qualitatively new functions is fundamental for shaping the diversity of life. Such innovations are rare because they require multiple coordinated changes. We sought to understand the evolutionary processes involved in a particular key innovation, whereby phage λ evolved the ability to exploit a novel receptor, OmpF, on the surface of Escherichia coli cells. Previous work has shown that this transition repeatedly evolves in the laboratory, despite requiring four mutations in specific regions of a single gene. Here we examine how this innovation evolved by studying six intermediate genotypes that arose during independent transitions to use OmpF. In particular, we tested whether these genotypes were favored by selection, and how a coevolved change in the hosts influenced the fitness of the phage genotypes. To do so, we measured the fitness of the intermediate types relative to the ancestral λ when competing for either ancestral or coevolved host cells. All six intermediates had improved fitness on at least one host, and four had higher fitness on the coevolved host than on the ancestral host. These results show that the evolution of the phage's new ability to use OmpF was repeatable because the intermediate genotypes were adaptive and, in many cases, because coevolution of the host favored their emergence.
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