Can Microbes Influence Their DNA to Speed Up Evolution?

In 1944 Evelyn Witkin made a fortuitous mistake. During her first experiment in a laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor, in New York, she accidentally irradiated millions of E. coli with a lethal dose of ultraviolet light.

When she returned the following day to check on the samples, they were all dead—except for one, in which four bacterial cells had survived and continued to grow.

Somehow, those cells were resistant to UV radiation. To Witkin, it seemed like a remarkably lucky coincidence that any cells in the culture had emerged with precisely the mutation they needed to survive—so much so that she questioned whether it was a coincidence at all.

For the next two decades, Witkin sought to understand how and why these mutants had emerged. Her research led her to what is now known as the SOS response, a DNA repair mechanism that bacteria employ when their genomes are damaged, during which dozens of genes become active and the rate of mutation goes up.

Those extra mutations are more often detrimental than beneficial, but they enable adaptations, such as the development of resistance to UV or antibiotics.

The question that has tormented some evolutionary biologists ever since is whether nature favored this arrangement. Is the upsurge in mutations merely a secondary consequence of a repair process inherently prone to error? Or, as some researchers claim, is the increase in the mutation rate itself an evolved adaptation, one that helps bacteria evolve advantageous traits more quickly in stressful environments?

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