Behavioral diversity in microbes and low-dimensional phenotypic spaces

David Jordan, Seppe Kuehn, Eleni Katifori, Stanislas Leibler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Systematic studies of phenotypic diversity - required for understanding evolution - lag behind investigations of genetic diversity. Here we develop a quantitative approach to studying behavioral diversity, which we apply to swimming of the ciliate Tetrahymena. We measure the full-lifetime behavior of hundreds of individual organisms at high temporal resolution, over several generations and in diverse nutrient conditions. To characterize population diversity and temporal variability we introduce a unique statistical framework grounded in the notion of a phenotypic space of behaviors. We show that this space is effectively low dimensional with dimensions that correlate with a two-state "roaming and dwelling" model of swimming behavior. Temporal variability over the lifetime of an individual is correlated with the fraction of time spent roaming whereas diversity between individuals is correlated with the speed of roaming. Quantifying the dynamics of behavioral variation shows that behavior over the lifetime of an individual is strongly nonstationary. Analysis of behavioral dynamics between generations reveals complex patterns of behavioral heritability that point to the importance of considering correlations beyond mothers and daughters. Our description of a low-dimensional behavioral space should enable the systematic study of the evolutionary and ecological bases of phenotypic constraints. Future experimental and theoretical studies of behavioral diversity will have to account for the possibility of nonstationary and environmentally dependent behavioral dynamics that we observe.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)14018-14023
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number34
StatePublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Behavioral variation in microbes
  • Biological sciences
  • Systems biology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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