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Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology
The Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food & Environment
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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Positive interactions within and between populations decrease the likelihood of evolutionary rescue

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Positive interactions, including intraspecies cooperation and interspecies mutualisms, play crucial roles in shaping the structure and function of many ecosystems, ranging from plant communities to the human microbiome. While the evolutionary forces that form and maintain positive interactions have been investigated extensively, the influence of positive interactions on the ability of species to adapt to new environments is still poorly understood. Here, we use numerical simulations and theoretical analyses to study how positive interactions impact the likelihood that populations survive after an environment deteriorates, such that survival in the new environment requires quick adaptation via the rise of new mutants-a scenario known as evolutionary rescue. We find that the probability of evolutionary rescue in populations engaged in positive interactions is reduced significantly. In cooperating populations, this reduction is largely due to the fact that survival may require at least a minimal number of individuals, meaning that adapted mutants must arise and spread before the population declines below this threshold. In mutualistic populations, the rescue probability is decreased further due to two additional effects-the need for both mutualistic partners to adapt to the new environment, and competition between the two species. Finally, we show that the presence of cheaters reduces the likelihood of evolutionary rescue even further, making it extremely unlikely. These results indicate that while positive interactions may be beneficial in stable environments, they can hinder adaptation to changing environments and thereby elevate the risk of population collapse. Furthermore, these results may hint at the selective pressures that drove co-dependent unicellular species to form more adaptable organisms able to differentiate into multiple phenotypes, including multicellular life. Author summary Many ecosystems are exposed to rapidly changing environmental conditions, from global warming to overuse of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture. Therefore, there is great interest in elucidating the factors that affect the ability of ecosystems to adapt to these changes. While many such factors have been recently investigated, the effect of interactions within a community on its ability to adapt remain largely unexplored. In this work, we focus on the effect of positive interactions, in the form of cooperation between individual or different species, on the ability of communities to adapt to new environments. Using simulations and theoretical analysis, we find that positive interactions significantly reduce the probability of survival of cooperative communities in changing environments, elevating the risk of populations' extinction. Furthermore, we suggest that the need for an adaptable solution of cooperation could have played a part in the circumstances leading to the transition between unicellular and multicellular life.