Turner, P. E., V. S. Cooper, and R. E. Lenski. 1998. Tradeoff between horizontal and vertical modes of transmission in bacterial plasmids. Evolution 52:455-469.
It has been hypothesized that there is a fundamental conflict between horizontal (infectious) and vertical (intergenerational) modes of parasite transmission. Activities of a parasite that increase its rate of infectious transmission are presumed to reduce its host's fitness. This reduction in host fitness impedes vertical transmission of the parasite and causes a tradeoff between horizontal and vertical transmission. Given this tradeoff, and assuming no multiple infections (no within-host competition among parasites), a simple model predicts that the density of uninfected hosts in the environment should determine the optimum balance between modes of parasite transmission. When susceptible hosts are abundant, selection should favor increased rates of horizontal transfer, even at the expense of reduced vertical transmission. Conversely, when hosts are rare, selection should favor increased vertical transmission even at the expense of lower horizontal transfer. We tested the tradeoff hypothesis and these evolutionary predictions using conjugative plasmids and the bacteria that they infect. Plasmids were allowed to evolve for 500 generations in environments with different densities of susceptible hosts. The plasmid's rate of horizontal transfer by conjugation increased at the expense of host fitness, indicating a tradeoff between horizontal and vertical transmission. Also, reductions in conjugation rate repeatedly coincided with the loss of a particular plasmid-encoded antibiotic resistance gene. However, susceptible host density had no significant effect on the evolution of horizontal versus vertical modes of plasmid transmission. We consider several possible explanations for the failure to observe such an effect.