Multicoloured greenbeards, bacteriocin diversity and the rock-paper-scissors game

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Abstract

Greenbeard genes identify copies of themselves in other individuals and cause their bearer to behave nepotistically towards those individuals. Bacterial toxins (bacteriocins) exemplify the greenbeard effect because producer strains carry closely linked genes for immunity, such that toxicity is limited to nonproducer strains. Bacteriocin producers can be maintained in a dynamic polymorphism, known as rock-paper-scissors (RPS) dynamics, with immune and susceptible strains. However, it is unclear whether and how such dynamics will be maintained in the presence of multiple toxin types (multiple beard ‘colours’). Here, we analyse strain dynamics using models of recurrent patch colonization and population growth. We find that (i) polymorphism is promoted by a small number of founding lineages per patch, strong local resource competition and the occurrence of mutations; (ii) polymorphism can be static or dynamic, depending on the intensity of local interactions and the costs of toxins and immunity; (iii) the occurrence of multiple toxins can promote RPS dynamics; and (iv) strain diversity can be maintained even when toxins differ in toxicity or lineages can exhibit multitoxicity/multi-immunity. Overall, the factors that maintain simple RPS dynamics can also promote the coexistence of multiple toxin types (multiple beard colours), thus helping to explain the remarkable levels of bacteriocin diversity in nature. More generally, we contrast these results with the maintenance of marker diversity in genetic kin recognition.

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