The evolution of bacterial cell size: The internal diffusion-constraint hypothesis

Romain Gallet, Cyrille Violle, Nathalie Fromin, Roula Jabbour-Zahab, Brian J. Enquist, Thomas Lenormand

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Size is one of the most important biological traits influencing organismal ecology and evolution. However, we know little about the drivers of body size evolution in unicellulars. A long-term evolution experiment (Lenski's LTEE) in which Escherichia coli adapts to a simple glucose medium has shown that not only the growth rate and the fitness of the bacterium increase over time but also its cell size. This increase in size contradicts prominent 'external diffusion' theory (EDC) predicting that cell size should have evolved toward smaller cells. Among several scenarios, we propose and test an alternative 'internal diffusion-constraint' (IDC) hypothesis for cell size evolution. A change in cell volume affects metabolite concentrations in the cytoplasm. The IDC states that a higher metabolism can be achieved by a reduction in the molecular traffic time inside of the cell, by increasing its volume. To test this hypothesis, we studied a population from the LTEE. We show that bigger cells with greater growth and CO 2 production rates and lower mass-to-volume ratio were selected over time in the LTEE. These results are consistent with the IDC hypothesis. This novel hypothesis offers a promising approach for understanding the evolutionary constraints on cell size.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1559-1568
Number of pages10
JournalISME Journal
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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