Adaptive evolution in the Pseudomonas fluorescens Wsp signalling pathway: exploring the relationship between genetic cause and phenotypic effect

  • Sam Farrell

    Student thesis: Phd


    When provided with spatial niches by growth in static nutrient medium, Pseudomonas fluorescens diversifies through adaptive radiation into several well-defined phenotype classes. One of these classes, named wrinkly spreader (WS) for its morphology on agar medium, forms a biofilm at the air-liquid interface through mutations in one of several loci including the genes wspF and awsX. These genes code for negative regulators of di-guanylate cyclases (DGCs). These DGCs catalyse synthesis of cyclic-di-GMP, a second messenger, overproduction of which effects physiological changes leading to overproduction of a cellulose polymer and the WS phenotype. Intriguingly, a diverse range of wspF mutations leads to diversity both in colony morphology and strain fitness.In this study, I investigate genetic and fitness diversity in wrinkly spreaders with the aim of identifying the causal factors that link genetic diversity and physiological factors with diversity in fitness. I approach the subject from several directions, examining the historical context of genetic diversity in wspF and awsX, distribution of control over output in the Wsp pathway and overall fitness effects of different causal factors. I investigate the genetic basis of wrinkly spreader evolution through generation of a large number of novel WS strains and exploration of the distribution of mutations in the wspF and awsX genes. In combination with this I calculate estimates of the past rates of mutation in these genes, derived from a phylogenetic investigation of a group of orthologues. I examine the response of the Wsp pathway to change in WspF function through a novel computational analysis that is capable of revealing valuable information on control in a biological system based purely on model structure. In addition I show how this analysis can be refined through specification of broad estimates of system parameters, thereby avoiding issues related to over-reliance on specific parameter values. Finally, I investigate the fitness implications of these factors, as well as a variety of others, through assays of fitness in a group of WS strains combined with machine learning analyses of predictive relationships between protein and mutation characteristics and experimentally measured strain fitness, and consider the implications of this analysis in the context of intermediate physiological effects.I find that mutations in the WspF protein that lead to the WS phenotype tend to be located in regions of historically strong conservation, the first time that any such pattern to WS mutations has been identified. Mutations in AwsX, on the other hand, do not fit such a pattern. Computational analysis of the Wsp pathway shows that, regardless of model parameters, pathway output is always more sensitive to changes in methylesterase activity by WspF than to changes in phosphorylation of WspF, which may explain the greater frequency of mutations fixed in vivo seen in the methylesterase domain. Despite these patterns, none of a wide range of mutation and sequence-based biochemical characteristics, including local rates of past evolution and size and position of mutations, exhibited any predictive power over WS fitness. Overall, the findings in this study point towards an essential role for complex pleiotropic effects in strongly modulating the fitness effect of different mutations in wspF.
    Date of Award1 Aug 2013
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • The University of Manchester
    SupervisorChris Knight (Supervisor)


    • genotype phenotype map
    • pseudomonas fluorescens
    • wrinkly spreaders
    • phylogenetic analysis
    • sensitivity analysis

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