Simpson’s Paradox in a Synthetic Microbial System

Abstract: The maintenance of “public” or “common good” producers is a major question in the evolution of cooperation. Because nonproducers benefit from the shared resource without bearing its cost of production, they may proliferate faster than producers. We established a synthetic microbial system consisting of two
Escherichia coli strains of common-good producers and nonproducers. Depending on the population structure, which was varied by forming groups with different initial compositions, an apparently paradoxical situation could be attained in which nonproducers grew faster within each group, yet producers increased overall. We show that a simple way to generate the variance required for this effect is through stochastic fluctuations via population bottlenecks. The synthetic approach described here thus provides a way to study generic mechanisms of natural selection.

DOI: 10.1126/science.1166739