Lyme bacteria show that evolvability is evolvable

Natural selection favours those with a greater capacity to generate genetic variation.


Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, is skilled at

evading the immune responses of its animal hosts. STEM JEMS/SPL

Some gamblers succeed by spiriting cards up their sleeves, giving them a wider range of hands to play. So do some bacteria, whose great capacity for genetic variability helps them evolve and adapt to rapidly changing environments.

Now research on Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, shows that the capacity to evolve can itself be the target of natural selection. The results were published today in PLoS Pathogens1

“There are other data that suggest that there could be selection on evolvability, but this is the first example where there really aren’t any other confounding answers for the data,” says lead author Dustin Brisson, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

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  1. This article reminds me of a remarks during earlier stages of the AIDS “epidemic”, when the infection was described as “bad news in a protein coat.” The difficulty in treating AIDS was that the protein coat kept changing, so that what was effective at one time would not be effective later on.

    Well, they seem to have a pretty good handle on AIDS now. Maybe these principles should be applied to Lyme research.

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