Nutrition-dependent effects of gut bacteria on growth plasticity in Drosophila melanogaster

Wolf Blanckenhorn based on reviews by Pedro Simões and 1 anonymous reviewer

A recommendation of:
Robin Guilhot, Antoine Rombaut, Anne Xuéreb, Kate Howell, Simon Fellous. Environmental specificity in Drosophila-bacteria symbiosis affects host developmental plasticity (2019), bioRxiv, 717702, ver. 3 peer-reviewed by Peer Community in Evolutionary Biology. 10.1101/717702
Submitted: 13 February 2019, Recommended: 20 November 2019
Cite this recommendation as:
Wolf Blanckenhorn (2019) Nutrition-dependent effects of gut bacteria on growth plasticity in Drosophila melanogaster. Peer Community in Evolutionary Biology, 100085. 10.24072/pci.evolbiol.100085

It is well known that the rearing environment has strong effects on life history and fitness traits of organisms. Microbes are part of every environment and as such likely contribute to such environmental effects. Gut bacteria are a special type of microbe that most animals harbor, and as such they are part of most animals’ environment. Such microbial symbionts therefore likely contribute to local adaptation [1]. The main question underlying the laboratory study by Guilhot et al. [2] was: How much do particular gut bacteria affect the organismal phenotype, in terms of life history and larval foraging traits, of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, a common laboratory model species in biology?
To investigate the above question, the authors isolated 4 taxa of bacteria from the gut of a (randomly picked) Drosophila melanogaster lab strain, and subsequently let Drosophila melanogaster eggs and larvae (stemming from their own, different lab strain) develop both in the typical artificial laboratory medium as well as in grapes, a natural “new” habitat for Drosophila larvae, inoculated with theses bacteria, singly and in combination, also including a bacteria-free control. By investigating various relevant developmental and size traits, the authors found that adding particularly Enterobacteria had some visible effects on several traits, both upward (indicting improvement) and downward (being detrimental) (with three other types of bacteria showing only minor or even no effects). In general, the grape medium reduced performance relative to the standard lab medium. Strongest interactive effects occurred for development time and body size, together making up growth plasticity [3], with lesser such effects on some related behavioral (feeding) traits (Figs. 2,3).
The study premise is interesting, its general objectives are clearly laid out, and the practical work was conducted correctly as far as I can evaluate. The study remains largely descriptive in that no particular a priori hypotheses or predictions in relation to the specific bacteria isolated were formulated, not least because the bacteria were necessarily somewhat arbitrarily chosen and there were apparently no prior studies from which to derive concrete predictions. Overall, the results of this study should be of interest to the community of evolutionary ecologists, especially those working on nutritional and microbiome effects on animal life histories. I consider this work to be primarily ecological, with limited evolutionary content (e.g. no genetics) though some evolutionary implications, as mentioned in the paper’s Conclusions. So this paper would best fit in a microbial or physiological ecology outlet/journal.
The inclusion of a natural medium (grapes) must be commended because this permits inferences and conclusions for at least one natural environment, whereas inferences drawn from laboratory studies in the artificial medium that most Drosophila researchers seem to use are typically limited. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the study showed that Drosophila melanogaster fared generally better in the artificial than the chosen natural medium (grape). Crucially, however, the bacterial symbionts modified both media differentially. Although common bacterial taxa were chosen, the particular bacteria isolated and used remain arbitrary, as there are many. I note that the main and strongest interactive effects between medium and bacterial type are apparent for the Enterobacteria, and they probably also strongly, if not exclusively, mediate the overall effect of the bacterial mixture.
While these specific data are novel, they are not very surprising. If we grow animals in different environments we can expect some detectable effects of these environments, including the bacterial (microbiome) environment, on the hosts life history. The standard and predicted [4] life history response of Drosophila melanogaster (but not all insects [3]) facing stressful nutritional environments, as apparently created by the Enterobacteria, is to extend development but come out smaller in the end. This is what happened here for the laboratory medium ([2]: Fig. 5). The biological interpretation is that individuals have more trouble ingesting and/or digesting the nutrients available (thus prolonging their foraging period and development), yet cannot convert the nutrients effectively into body size increments (hence emerging smaller). This is what the authors here refer to as developmental plasticity, which is ultimately nutritionally mediated. However, interestingly, a signal in the opposite direction was indicated for the bacterial mixture in the grape medium (flies emerging larger after accelerated development: Fig. 5), suggesting some positive effects on growth rate of the natural medium, perhaps related to grapes being a limited resource that needs to be escaped quickly [3]? The reversal of sexual size dimorphism across bacterial treatments in the grape environment detectable in Fig. 4 is interesting, too, though I don’t understand why this happens, and this is not discussed.
In general, more encompassing and increased questions in this context to be researched in the future could be: 1) are these effects predictable (not (yet) at this point, or so it seems); and 2) how strong are these environmental bacterial effects relative to other, more standard effects (e.g. relative to genetic variation, population variation, etc., or relative to other types of environmental effects like, say, temperature)? (3) It could further be asked why not natural but laboratory populations of Drosophila were used for this experiment, if the aim was to draw inferences for the wild situation. (4) Although Genotype x Environment effects are invoked in the Discussion, they were not tested here, lacking genetically different Drosophila families or populations. From an evolutionary standpoint, I consider this the greatest weakness of the study. I was also not too thrilled by the particular statistical analyses employed, though this ultimately does not negate the results. Nevertheless, this work is a good start in this huge field investigating the microbiome. In conclusion, I can recommend this paper after review by PCI Evol Biol.


[1] Kawecki, T. J. and Ebert, D. (2004) Conceptual issues in local adaptation. Ecology Letters 7: 1225-1241. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2004.00684.x
[2] Guilhot, R., Rombaut, A., Xuéreb, A., Howell, K. and Fellous, S. (2019). Environmental specificity in Drosophila-bacteria symbiosis affects host developmental plasticity. BioRxiv, 717702, v3 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Evolutionary Biology. doi: 10.1101/717702
[3] Blanckenhorn, W.U. (1999) Different growth responses to temperature and resource limitation in three fly species with similar life histories. Evolutionary Ecology 13: 395-409. doi: 10.1023/A:1006741222586
[4] Stearns, S. C. and Koella, J. (1986) The evolution of phenotypic plasticity in life history traits: predictions of reaction norms for age and size at maturity. Evolution 40: 893-914. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.1986.tb00560.x