The distribution of bacterial doubling times in the wild

Gibson, B., Wilson, D. J., Feil, E. and Eyre-Walker, A. (2018)
Proceedings of the Royal Society B 285: 20180789. (pdf preprint)

Generation time varies widely across organisms and is an important factor in the life cycle, life history and evolution of organisms. Although the doubling time (DT) has been estimated for many bacteria in the laboratory, it is nearly impossible to directly measure it in the natural environment. However, an estimate can be obtained by measuring the rate at which bacteria accumulate mutations per year in the wild and the rate at which they mutate per generation in the laboratory. If we assume the mutation rate per generation is the same in the wild and in the laboratory, and that all mutations in the wild are neutral, an assumption that we show is not very important, then an estimate of the DT can be obtained by dividing the latter by the former. We estimate the DT for five species of bacteria for which we have both an accumulation and a mutation rate estimate. We also infer the distribution of DTs across all bacteria from the distribution of the accumulation and mutation rates. Both analyses suggest that DTs for bacteria in the wild are substantially greater than those in the laboratory, that they vary by orders of magnitude between different species of bacteria and that a substantial fraction of bacteria double very slowly in the wild.