Populations adapt physiologically using regulatory mechanisms and genetically by means of mutations that improve growth. During growth under selection, genetic adaptation can be rapid. In several genetic systems, the speed of adaptation has been attributed to cellular mechanisms that increase mutation rates in response to growth limitation. An alternative possibility is that growth limitation serves only as a selective agent but acts on small-effect mutations that are common under all growth conditions. The genetic systems that initially suggested stress-induced mutagenesis have been analyzed without regard for multistep adaptation and some include features that make such analysis difficult. To test the selection-only model, a simpler system is examined, whose behavior was originally attributed to stress-induced mutagenesis (Yang et al. 2001, 2006). A population with a silent chromosomal lac operon gives rise to Lac+ revertant colonies that accumulate over 6 days under selection. Each colony contains a mixture of singly and doubly mutant cells. Evidence is provided that the colonies are initiated by pre-existing single mutants with a weak Lac+ phenotype. Under selection, these cells initiate slow-growing clones, in which a second mutation arises and improves growth of the resulting double mutant. The system shows no evidence of general mutagenesis during selection. Selection alone may explain rapid adaptation in this and other systems that give the appearance of mutagenesis.
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