Programmed Allee effect in bacteria causes a tradeoff between population spread and survival.
Dispersal is necessary for spread into new habitats, but it has also been shown to inhibit spread. Theoretical studies have suggested that the presence of a strong Allee effect may account for these counterintuitive observations. Experimental demonstration of this notion is lacking due to the difficulty in quantitative analysis of such phenomena in a natural setting. We engineered Escherichia coli to exhibit a strong Allee effect and examined how the Allee effect would affect the spread of the engineered bacteria. We showed that the Allee effect led to a biphasic dependence of bacterial spread on the dispersal rate: spread is promoted for intermediate dispersal rates but inhibited at low or high dispersal rates. The shape of this dependence is contingent upon the initial density of the source population. Moreover, the Allee effect led to a tradeoff between effectiveness of population spread and survival: increasing the number of target patches during dispersal allows more effective spread, but it simultaneously increases the risk of failing to invade or of going extinct. We also observed that total population growth is transiently maximized at an intermediate number of target patches. Finally, we demonstrate that fluctuations in cell growth may contribute to the paradoxical relationship between dispersal and spread. Our results provide direct experimental evidence that the Allee effect can explain the apparently paradoxical effects of dispersal on spread and have implications for guiding the spread of cooperative organisms.
Smith, R; Tan, C; Srimani, JK; Pai, A; Riccione, KA; Song, H; You, L
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