Rates of random, spontaneous mutation can vary plastically, dependent upon the environment. Such plasticity affects evolutionary trajectories and may be adaptive. We recently identified an inverse plastic association between mutation rate and population density at 1 locus in 1 species of bacterium. It is unknown how widespread this association is, whether it varies among organisms, and what molecular mechanisms of mutagenesis or repair are required for this mutation-rate plasticity. Here, we address all 3 questions. We identify a strong negative association between mutation rate and population density across 70 years of published literature, comprising hundreds of mutation rates estimated using phenotypic markers of mutation (fluctuation tests) from all domains of life and viruses. We test this relationship experimentally, determining that there is indeed density-associated mutation-rate plasticity (DAMP) at multiple loci in both eukaryotes and bacteria, with up to 23-fold lower mutation rates at higher population densities. We find that the degree of plasticity varies, even among closely related organisms. Nonetheless, in each domain tested, DAMP requires proteins scavenging the mutagenic oxidised nucleotide 8-oxo-dGTP. This implies that phenotypic markers give a more precise view of mutation rate than previously believed: having accounted for other known factors affecting mutation rate, controlling for population density can reduce variation in mutation-rate estimates by 93%. Widespread DAMP, which we manipulate genetically in disparate organisms, also provides a novel trait to use in the fight against the evolution of antimicrobial resistance. Such a prevalent environmental association and conserved mechanism suggest that mutation has varied plastically with population density since the early origins of life.
Krašovec, R., Richards, H., Gifford, D. R., Hatcher, C., Faulkner, K. J., Belavkin, R. V., … Knight, C. G. (2017). Spontaneous mutation rate is a plastic trait associated with population density across domains of life. PLoS Biology, 15(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2002731