Cells can cooperate and cheat and researches at SynthSys have shown that synthetic biology can be used to test novel hypothesis on the way cellular cooperation is preserved.
Cells must cooperate to survive all sorts of ecological and environmental stresses. Cooperation is always at risk of cellular cheaters (so-called free-riders): they can profit from cooperative cells, avoid any contribution to the community, and ultimately lead to its collapse. However, contrary to what one may think, the collapse caused by the cheaters may have its own beneficial ecological effects; it facilitates cooperative cells to group together, a phenomenon that finally allows the resurgence of cooperation and of the entire population. Dr Matteo Cavaliere, from SynthSys and the School of Informatics, and colleagues obtained this paradoxical finding by combining computational modelling and wet-lab experiments with synthetic cells that have been engineered with the ability to cooperate and cheat. The results show how synthetic biology can be used to engineer and study the interplay of ecology and evolution, an issue that can crucially affect the resilience of cellular communities. The team plan to extend this work to mammalian systems in collaboration with members of the UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology.
The work was published in Nature Scientific Reports. http://www.nature.com/articles/srep42561
Figure: Population collapse induced by cheating cells and following recovery facilitated by an engineered eco-evolutionary feedback