Tag Archives: time

Some Wrinkles in Time

Today is another milestone for the E. coli long-term evolution experiment—the LTEE, for short. I did the 10,000th daily transfer today at about noon.

REL doing LTEE transfer 10,000 with Neerja keeping a close eye on me

[Yours truly, doing the 10,000th LTEE transfers. Technician Neerja Hajela is keeping a close eye on me, and with good reason. Photo by Thomas LaBar.]

Some of you will remember we just celebrated the LTEE’s 29th birthday a few weeks ago, on February 24th. And if you’re quick with math, you might be thinking: “Wait a second: 29 years times 365 days per year is a lot more than 10,000 days. Have Lenski and his team screwed up?”

The answer is both yes and no. Let me explain.

The LTEE began on February 24, 1988 [1, 2].

From February 24, 1988, to March 13, 2017, equals 10,609 days on which we could have done transfers. But we’ve only had 10,000 transfers. What happened to those other days?

In short, the bacteria spent the 609 “lost” days in a freezer at –80°C or in a refrigerator at 4°C.

One chunk of days was lost when the LTEE was moved from my lab at UC-Irvine, where I started the experiment, to MSU, where it is today. Moving a lab is difficult: it requires moving people, moving equipment and materials, often renovating space, obtaining new supplies and equipment, hiring new people, and trouble-shooting and otherwise getting everything organized to resume work [3].

We lost 191 days from April 8, 1992, when the 10,000-generation samples went into the freezer at UCI, to October 16, 1992, when the LTEE restarted from the frozen samples at MSU.

Most of the other days have been lost as a result of various accidents. I’m often asked, when I give talks on the LTEE, how we’ve kept the experiment going so long without contamination, broken flasks, equipment failure, etc.

The short answer is that we haven’t. Many accidents have happened along the way.

There are 3 main types of accidents, each of which involves a different sort of interruption and recovery.

Little mistakes: Sometimes a flask has a hairline crack; when you take it out of the incubator the next day, there’s just a puddle of salt on the bottom. Or maybe someone knocked over a flask while doing the daily transfers. In cases like these where a mistake occurs that is immediately recognized, we go back in time (and lose) one day.

How do we do that? Each day, after the transfers have been made, we don’t immediately discard the previous day’s cultures. Instead, we put them in a refrigerator, where we can use them to restart the experiment after these little mistakes. The bacteria have finished growing long before each day’s transfer, so they are in stationary phase, and their metabolic activity is even lower sitting there at 4°C. Restarting the populations from the refrigerated cultures is a perturbation, of course, but a tiny one in the scheme of things.

When these little mistakes happen to one population, we go back a day for all the populations. We do that so that the rhythm of the experiment, which involves quality-control checks and freezing samples at regular intervals, is the same for all of the populations.

Bigger slipups: Another sort of problem can occur if the entire experiment is compromised in a way that is not immediately recognized. For example, the autoclave might not be working properly, and we realize that bottles of media that we’ve been using for a few days are contaminated. In that case, the cultures stored in the refrigerator won’t help us.

But we don’t have to start the LTEE all over at t = 0. (If we did, then the experiment wouldn’t be here today!) Instead, we go back to the last time that we froze samples, just like we did when we restarted the experiment after the move from UCI to MSU. Importantly, we restart the LTEE from whole-population samples, not individual clones, so that we do not lose the diversity that is present in an evolving population.

Of course, moving the bacteria into and out of the freezer is a perturbation, involving the addition of a cryoprotectant, freezing the cells, thawing them, and re-acclimating them to the conditions of the LTEE. Still, it happens only occasionally. Moreover, all of the samples used in competitions or other assays go into the freezer, come out, and are re-acclimated to the relevant conditions before measurements are made.

Dreaded cross-contamination: The third kind of accident is when bacteria from one LTEE population “migrate” into another population. That’s not supposed to happen, because it compromises the statistical independence of the populations, which are units of replication on which many analyses rest. I worried about this issue before I started the LTEE, because one of the central questions that motivated the experiment is the reproducibility of evolution. And I’m glad I worried about it. Fortunately, there was a pretty easy way of dealing with this concern from the outset.

Six of the 12 populations started from cells of an ancestral strain, REL606, that cannot grow on the sugar arabinose; they are phenotypically Ara. The others started from cells of a mutant, REL607, that can grow on arabinose; these populations are Ara+. There is no arabinose in the LTEE environment, and the mutation that allows growth on arabinose has no measurable affect on fitness in that environment. However, when Araand Ara+ cells grow on Tetrazolium Arabinose (TA) agar in a petri dish, they make red and white (or pink) colonies, respectively.

Ecoli-plate

[Mix of Araand Ara+ colonies on TA agar.]

The arabinose phenotype serves two important purposes in the LTEE. First, we use it to estimate the abundance of competitors in the assays we perform to measure relative fitness. To that end, we typically compete an evolved Ara population sample against the Ara+ ancestor, and vice versa. Second, with respect to the possibility of cross-contamination, we alternate Ara and Ara+ populations during the daily transfers. The idea is that, if an accidental cross-contamination does occur, it will likely involve adjacent populations and lead to cells that have the wrong phenotype (i.e., produce the wrong-colored cells on TA agar) in a population. So we check each population for that phenotype whenever we freeze samples.

When we find one or more cells that produce the wrong-colored colony, we have to figure out what to do. There are various additional checks that we can perform, especially nowadays when DNA sequencing has allowed us to discover many mutations—additional markers—that uniquely identify each population. In particular, these extra markers have, in recent years, let us distinguish between “false alarms” (new mutations that affect colony color on the TA agar) and actual cross-contamination events. In any case, when we’ve had suspected or confirmed cross-contamination events, we restart the invaded population from the previous sample [4]. We then typically monitor that population by plating samples periodically on TA agar, to make sure it didn’t have a low frequency of cross-contaminating invaders even before that earlier sample was frozen. As a consequence of restarting invaded populations, some of the LTEE populations are 500 generations (or multiples thereof) behind the leading edge.

So today’s 10,000th daily transfer applies to some, but not all, of the LTEE populations.

Despite these precautions and procedures, I worried that somehow we had slipped up and there were undetected cross-contamination events. Maybe there had been an especially fun party one Friday night … and on Saturday someone forgot the protocol and transferred all six red Ara populations in a row before moving on to the six white Ara+ populations. In that case, a cross-contamination might occur but not be detected. So I was thrilled when we sequenced hundreds of genomes from different generations of the LTEE populations and there was no evidence of any cross-contamination. Have I mentioned all the terrific people who have worked with me?

One of the unsung heroes of the LTEE is my technician and lab manager, Neerja Hajela. She has worked with me for over 20 years now, and she’s probably done more daily transfers than everyone else combined.

Neerja Hajela 13-Mar-2017

[Neerja Hajela, technician and lab manager extraordinaire.]

By the way, there were not 12, but 15, flasks in the trays while I was doing the transfers. What’s going on with that?

Flasks LTEE day 10,000

[The 15 LTEE flasks in the incubator.]

One of the extras is a blank—a culture without bacteria. If the medium in that flask is turbid the next day, then “Houston, we have a problem.” Another of the extras is a population we’re calling Ara–7. It was spun off population Ara–3 after we discovered—many thousands of generations later—that one lineage in that population had gone extinct for some reason that we do not understand. You can read more about that here. Ara–7 doesn’t count as one of the “real” LTEE populations, but it might prove useful in comparison with Ara–3 at some point in the future.

And the third extra? Remember what I said about cross-contamination? Well, we recently discovered a cross-contamination event in which cells that made red colonies on TA agar were found among the white-colony-forming cells of the Ara+1 population. Postdoc Zachary Blount confirmed they weren’t new mutants that made the wrong-colored colonies in Ara+1; instead, those cells had specific mutations that showed they came from population Ara–1, meaning they were cross-contaminating invaders.

Zachary Blount 13-Mar-2017

[Zachary Blount, aka Dr. Citrate.]

So we restarted Ara+1 from its previous frozen sample, monitored it by plating cells on TA agar, and … alas, up came some more of those red invaders. It’s interesting, in a way, because Ara–1 is one of the most fit LTEE populations, while Ara+1 is the very least fit, which means Ara+1 is especially susceptible to invasion from its Ara–1 neighbor in the daily transfers. Anyhow, we then restarted Ara+1 going back in time 1000 and 1500 generations—hence, the extra flask—and we will monitor those for a while by plating samples on TA agar. If neither of them shows any sign of invaders for several weeks, then we will continue only the one with the fewer “lost” generations and drop the other.

There’s one other little issue related to keeping time in the LTEE. Every day, we remove 0.1 mL from each flask culture and transfer it to 9.9 mL of fresh medium. That 100-fold dilution allows the bacterial population to grow 100-fold before it depletes the available resources. And that 100-fold growth corresponds to log2 100 ≈ 6.64 generations. But we round it up a tad to 6.67 generations, so that every 15 transfers equals 100 generations [5].

In any case, our fielding percentage (baseball jargon for the ratio of plays without errors to total chances on defense) is 10,000 / 10,609 ≈ 0.943. If we exclude the lost days associated with the move from UCI to MSU, then the percentage rises to 0.960. Not bad, not bad at all. Did I mention the terrific people who have worked, and are working, on the LTEE?

This post’s title is a play on the novel A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

[1] I first started the LTEE on February 15, 1988, but I then restarted it on February 24, because I got worried that the first arabinose-utilization mutation I had selected, which serves as a neutral marker, wasn’t quite neutral.

[2] So the LTEE experienced a leap day in its very first week!

[3] I was fortunate that three experienced graduate students—Mike Travisano, Paul Turner, and Farida Vasi—moved to MSU even before I did to help set up the lab, and that our research was allowed to continue in my UCI lab—led by technician Sue Simpson and John Mittler, who was finishing his PhD—after I moved in late December, 1991.

[4] To keep all the populations in sync with respect to the freezing cycle, we restart the others at the same time, too. Of course, for the others, we don’t go back in time—we use the latest sample, where the cross-contaminated population was discovered during the quality-control checks associated with the freezing cycle.

[5] In fact, 6.67 generations per day might be a slight underestimate given the possibility of turnover during stationary phase. Moreover, every lineage with a beneficial mutation that sweeps to fixation goes through more than the average number of generations, since each mutant lineage starts as one cell among millions.

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Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Today is the 29th birthday of the long-term evolution experiment (LTEE). As I wrote on Twitter: “May the cells live long & prosper, both in & out of the -80C freezers.” I hope they—and the rest of the world—will be evolving and improving long after I’m gone.

Anyhow, after my tweet, Luis Zaman asked for a picture of me on my own 29th birthday. (I started the LTEE when I was 31.) Alas, I don’t have one. But I’ve found some pictures from around that time—including just before and after I moved to UC-Irvine to start my first faculty position, and over the next few years up to about the time I started the LTEE.

Summer, 1985: This photo is from Amherst, Massachusetts, where I did my postdoc with the amazing Bruce Levin, who hosted a goodbye party for us. From left to right: Ralph Evans, a brilliant graduate student and dear friend, who died tragically just a few years later of brain cancer. My beautiful wife, Madeleine. Our one-year-old daughter Shoshannah, being held by forever-young Bruce. Yours truly, holding our three-year-old son Daniel. And Miriam Levin, an art historian.

amherst-goodbye-party-summer-1985

October, 1985: Shoshannah on my shoulders at the San Diego Zoo, a few months after we moved to Irvine.

october-1985-san-diego-zoo-with-shosh

March, 1986: First-year faculty member burning the midnight oil in our Las Lomas apartment at UCI. Working on a paper? Or getting ready to teach 700 students the next day? (Two sections of Ecology, a required course for Bio Sci majors, with an hour to recuperate in between. It was well worth it, though, because one of the students in one of the many quarters I taught that course was the great Mike Travisano.)

march-1986-working-late

October, 1986: Moving up in the world, we bought a new house on Mendel Court in University Hills. My parents visited, and that’s my mother, Jean, a poet who loved science.

october-1986-mendel-court-with-mom

March, 1987: The great Lin Chao came for a visit. We grew pea plants on the trellis below the number 6—after all, it was 6 Mendel Court.

march-1987-with-lin-chao

June, 1987: One of the fun events at UCI was Desert X (for extravaganza), hosted by Dick MacMillan, the chair of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, on his property near Joshua Tree National Park. With Madeleine, who is “holding” our Number 3.

june-1987-desert-x-with-m

June, 1987: Working Xtra hard at Desert X with close friend and colleague Al Bennett.

june-1987-desert-x-with-al

September, 1987: With an already smiling one-month-old Natalie.

sept-1987-with-natalie

January, 1989: Time for some snuggles. Meanwhile, the LTEE is not quite a year old.

jan-1989-with-3-kiddos

The title of this post is a song by Fairport Convention, with the hauntingly beautiful voice of the late, great Sandy Denny. You should listen to it.

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On Time and Space

The long-term evolution experiment (LTEE) began in 1988, and the E. coli populations are approaching 60,000 generations.  That’s a long time for an experiment, and I hope it continues for much, much longer.

But when I give talks about the LTEE, I also try to remind people that 26 years is only a drop in the proverbial bucket of evolutionary time.  If you were to add these experimental populations to the tree of life—or even to a tree showing only other E. coli strains—they would not be visible to the eye because the branches they represent—tiny twigs, really—would be so short (in time) and so close (in genetic distance) to their ancestors.

On Time and the LTEE

Life has existed on Earth for roughly 3.5 to 4 billion years.  That’s about 140 million times longer than the LTEE has existed.  Expressed the other way around, this experiment has been running for about 0.0000007% of the time that life has been evolving on our planet.

As I said, a mere drop in the bucket of time …

That’s a somewhat mixed metaphor, though, with “a drop in the bucket” being a statement about space and relative volumes, not about time.  And that got me wondering about the spatial scale of the LTEE relative to the spatial scale of the biosphere.

If the LTEE is just 0.0000007% as old as life on Earth, what fraction of the space—of the total biovolume—of life on our planet exists in the confines of the LTEE?

On Space and the LTEE

That’s a harder a question to answer.  We know the volume of the LTEE:  there are 12 flasks, one for each of the evolving populations, and each flask contains 10 milliliters (mL) of liquid medium.  (In medicine, by the way, a drop has been defined as 1/20th of a mL, so each flask in the LTEE contains 200 drops.)  If we sum across the populations, then the LTEE occupies 120 mL.

Before you read further:  What’s your quick intuition?  Is the LTEE larger on this spatial scale than on the temporal scale?  Or is the LTEE smaller?

Volumes and Numbers

How should we estimate the volume of Earth’s biosphere?  Here are three back-of-the-envelope approaches to get a rough sense of the scale.

1)  Most of the Earth is covered by its oceans, which are full of life.  While life is not equally abundant throughout the oceans, none of that space is entirely devoid of life.  The total volume of Earth’s oceans is about 1.3 billion cubic km.  That’s a lot of mL!  A mL is a cubic centimeter, or cc, and that’s 1/(100^3) = 1 millionth of a cubic meter.  A cubic meter is 1/(1000^3) = 1 billionth of a cubic kilometer, and the oceans contain over a billion of those cubic kilometers.

So the 120 mL in the LTEE correspond to 120 / (1.3 x 10^9 x 10^9 x 10^6), or about 9 x 10^-22 of what  the oceans contain.  That’s just 0.000000000000000000009% of the volume of the oceans.

By this calculation, then, the temporal scale of the LTEE is ~75 trillion times greater than its spatial scale, when both are expressed relative to nature.  If the LTEE is “a drop in the bucket” with respect to time, then that drop has to be diluted by a factor of 75 trillion with respect to the oceans.

2)  Let’s try another quick-and-dirty calculation.  Most life, in the oceans and on land, is near the Earth’s surface.  The surface area of our planet is about 510 million square kilometers.  If we take just the top meter, that’s equivalent to 510/1000  = 0.51 million cubic kilometers.  That’s about 1/2600 of the volume of the ocean.  But even this conservative estimate of the volume of the biosphere makes the relative scaling of the LTEE with respect to time and space differ by a factor of 30 billion.

3)  Here’s one more approach—it’s based not on the volume of the physical environment but, instead, on the number of organisms in the LTEE and in the biosphere.  When grown to stationary-phase density in the LTEE environment (i.e., when the limiting resource, glucose, is depleted), the ancestral bacteria could achieve a maximum density of ~5 x 10^7 cells per mL.  Most populations have evolved so that they now produce slightly fewer, but larger, cells; and one population has evolved the ability to use the citrate that is also in the medium, and it now reaches a density that is several times greater than the other populations.  In any case, given 10 mL of medium for each population, and 12 populations, the total population size across the LTEE is on the order of 10^10 cells.

And how many cells exist in the Earth’s biosphere?  Whitman et al. (1998, PNAS) estimated that there are more than 10^30 prokaryotes—bacteria and archaea combined—in the biosphere, and they make up the great majority of all living things.

So by this approach, using the number of cells as a proxy for the spatial scale, the size of the biosphere is over 10^20 (a hundred-million-trillion) times larger than the LTEE.  We’re back into the trillions in terms of the relative scaling of the temporal and spatial scales of the LTEE.

On Time, Space, and the LTEE

By all three approaches, then, the LTEE is vastly older with respect to the history of life on Earth than it is large with respect to the size of Earth’s biosphere.

The LTEE really is a long-running experiment, as experiments go.

But the LTEE is a “drop in the bucket” with respect to how long life has been evolving on Earth.  And it is a vastly more miniscule “drop in the bucket” when compared to the spatial extent and number of living organisms on our planet.

Maybe I should give the LTEE a new name—the “incredibly tiny but relatively long-term evolution experiment.”

[Photo of a water drop on a leaf taken by tanakawho and shared on Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Water_drop_on_a_leaf.jpg).]

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