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Historical contingency in the evolution of antibiotic resistance after decades of relaxed selection
Populations often encounter changed environments that remove selection for the maintenance of particular phenotypic traits. The resulting genetic decay of those traits under relaxed selection reduces an organism’s fitness in its prior environment. However, whether and how such decay alters the subsequent evolvability of a population upon restoration of selection for a previously diminished trait is not well understood. We addressed this question using Escherichia coli strains from the long-term evolution experiment (LTEE) that independently evolved for multiple decades in the absence of antibiotics. We first confirmed that these derived strains are typically more sensitive to various antibiotics than their common ancestor. We then subjected the ancestral and derived strains to various concentrations of these drugs to examine their potential to evolve increased resistance. We found that evolvability was idiosyncratic with respect to initial genotype; that is, the derived strains did not generally compensate for their greater susceptibility by “catching up” to the resistance level of the ancestor. Instead, the capacity to evolve increased resistance was constrained in some backgrounds, implying that evolvability depended upon prior mutations in a historically contingent fashion. We further subjected a time-series of clones from one LTEE population to tetracycline and determined that an evolutionary constraint arose early in that population, corroborating the role of contingency. In summary, relaxed selection not only can drive populations to increased antibiotic susceptibility, but it can also affect the subsequent evolvability of antibiotic resistance in an unpredictable manner. This conclusion has potential implications for public health, and it underscores the need to consider the genetic context of pathogens when designing drug-treatment strategies.
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