Ecological genomics of mutualism decline in nitrogen-fixing bacteria

Christie R. Klinger, Jennifer A. Lau, Katy D. Heath

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Anthropogenic changes can influence mutualism evolution; however, the genomic regions underpinning mutualism that are most affected by environmental change are generally unknown, even in well-studied model mutualisms like the interaction between legumes and their nitrogen (N)-fixing rhizobia. Such genomic information can shed light on the agents and targets of selection maintaining cooperation in nature. We recently demonstrated that N-fertilization has caused an evolutionary decline in mutualistic partner quality in the rhizobia that form symbiosis with clover. Here, population genomic analyses of N-fertilized versus control rhizobium populations indicate that evolutionary differentiation at a key symbiosis gene region on the symbiotic plasmid (pSym) contributes to partner quality decline. Moreover, patterns of genetic variation at selected loci were consistent with recent positive selection within N-fertilized environments, suggesting that N-rich environments might select for less beneficial rhizobia. By studying the molecular population genomics of a natural bacterial population within a long-term ecological field experiment, we find that: (i) the N environment is indeed a potent selective force mediating mutualism evolution in this symbiosis, (ii) natural variation in rhizobium partner quality is mediated in part by key symbiosis genes on the symbiotic plasmid, and (iii) differentiation at selected genes occurred in the context of otherwise recombining genomes, resembling eukaryotic models of adaptation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20152563
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1826
StatePublished - Mar 9 2016


  • Adaptation
  • Bacteria
  • Deposition
  • Microbe
  • Mutualism
  • Symbiosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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