Link to Pubmed [PMID] – 24278000
PLoS Comput. Biol. 2013;9(11):e1003339
When cooperation has a direct cost and an indirect benefit, a selfish behavior is more likely to be selected for than an altruistic one. Kin and group selection do provide evolutionary explanations for the stability of cooperation in nature, but we still lack the full understanding of the genomic mechanisms that can prevent cheater invasion. In our study we used Aevol, an agent-based, in silico genomic platform to evolve populations of digital organisms that compete, reproduce, and cooperate by secreting a public good for tens of thousands of generations. We found that cooperating individuals may share a phenotype, defined as the amount of public good produced, but have very different abilities to resist cheater invasion. To understand the underlying genetic differences between cooperator types, we performed bio-inspired genomics analyses of our digital organisms by recording and comparing the locations of metabolic and secretion genes, as well as the relevant promoters and terminators. Association between metabolic and secretion genes (promoter sharing, overlap via frame shift or sense-antisense encoding) was characteristic for populations with robust cooperation and was more likely to evolve when secretion was costly. In mutational analysis experiments, we demonstrated the potential evolutionary consequences of the genetic association by performing a large number of mutations and measuring their phenotypic and fitness effects. The non-cooperating mutants arising from the individuals with genetic association were more likely to have metabolic deleterious mutations that eventually lead to selection eliminating such mutants from the population due to the accompanying fitness decrease. Effectively, cooperation evolved to be protected and robust to mutations through entangled genetic architecture. Our results confirm the importance of second-order selection on evolutionary outcomes, uncover an important genetic mechanism for the evolution and maintenance of cooperation, and suggest promising methods for preventing gene loss in synthetically engineered organisms.