Selection detects mutants but does not cause mutations. Contrary to this dictum, Cairns and Foster plated a leaky lac mutant of Escherichia coli on lactose medium and saw revertant (Lac(+)) colonies accumulate with time above a nongrowing lawn. This result suggested that bacteria might mutagenize their own genome when growth is blocked. However, this conclusion is suspect in the light of recent evidence that revertant colonies are initiated by preexisting cells with multiple copies the conjugative F'lac plasmid, which carries the lac mutation. Some plated cells have multiple copies of the simple F'lac plasmid. This provides sufficient LacZ activity to support plasmid replication but not cell division. In nongrowing cells, repeated plasmid replication increases the likelihood of a reversion event. Reversion to lac(+) triggers exponential cell growth leading to a stable Lac(+) revertant colony. In 10% of these plated cells, the high-copy plasmid includes an internal tandem lac duplication, which provides even more LacZ activity—sufficient to support slow growth and formation of an unstable Lac(+) colony. Cells with multiple copies of the F'lac plasmid have an increased mutation rate, because the plasmid encodes the error-prone (mutagenic) DNA polymerase, DinB. Without DinB, unstable and stable Lac(+) revertant types form in equal numbers and both types arise with no mutagenesis. Amplification and selection are central to behavior of the Cairns-Foster system, whereas mutagenesis is a system-specific side effect or artifact caused by coamplification of dinB with lac. Study of this system has revealed several broadly applicable principles. In all populations, gene duplications are frequent stable genetic polymorphisms, common near-neutral mutant alleles can gain a positive phenotype when amplified under selection, and natural selection can operate without cell division when variability is generated by overreplication of local genome subregions.
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