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Keywords:

  • Cooperation;
  • gene regulation;
  • interactions;
  • public goods;
  • siderophore;
  • social cheats

The idea that bacteria are social is a popular concept with implications for understanding the ecology and evolution of microbes. The view arises predominately from reasoning regarding extracellular products, which, it has been argued, can be considered “public goods.” Among the best studied is pyoverdin—a diffusible iron-chelating agent produced by bacteria of the genus Pseudomonas. Here we report the de novo evolution of pyoverdin nonproducing mutants, genetically characterize these types and then test the appropriateness of the sociobiology framework by performing growth and fitness assays in the same environment in which the nonproducing mutants evolved. Our data draw attention to discordance in the fit between social evolution theory and biological reality. We show that pyoverdin-defective genotypes can gain advantage by avoiding the cost of production under conditions where the molecule is not required; in some environments pyoverdin is personalized. By exploring the fitness consequences of nonproducing types under a range of conditions, we show complex genotype-by-environment interactions with outcomes that range from social to asocial. Together these findings give reason to question the generality of the conclusion that pyoverdin is a social trait.