Statistical and Biological Physics

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Chemical warfare and survival strategies in bacterial range expansions

Markus F. Weber, Gabriele Poxleitner, Elke Hebisch, Erwin Frey and Madeleine Opitz

The fate of every species depends on its ability to colonize new area and to defend it from invaders. Examples of successful range expansions encompass the human migration out of Africa and the recent spreading of pandemic diseases. unfortunately, natural range expansions are exceedingly complex and experimental control is most often lacking. Such control is, however, needed to calibrate mathematical models that can predict whether a species has the ability to survive. While the study of ecological processes remains a difficult challenge on the global scale, new methods of control are currently emerging for life on the microscopic scale. We investigated range expansion abilities for a system of three Escherichia coli strains: a toxin producing strain, a sensitive strain (facing death upon the encounter of toxins), and a resistant strain. Genetic engineering allowed us to study range expansions of the three strains in different ecological scenarios, including a rock-paper-scissors scenario. We acquired experimental data to calibrate a mathematical model of the bacterial expansion that correctly predicted the strains with successful survival strategies. The model allowed us to describe the relationship between factors that influence a strain’s chance of survival in terms of phenomenological “biodiversity laws”. Our work provides a thorough analysis of the bacterial model system and demonstrates how integration of experimental study with mathematical modelling benefits the understanding of ecological systems.