The evolution of competitive ability for essential resources

Joey R. Bernhardt*, Pavel Kratina, Aaron Louis Pereira, Manu Tamminen, Mridul K. Thomas, Anita Narwani

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

22 Downloads (Pure)


Competition for limiting resources is among the most fundamental ecological interactions and has long been considered a key driver of species coexistence and biodiversity. Species’ minimum resource requirements, their R*s, are key traits that link individual physiological demands to the outcome of competition. However, a major question remains unanswered—to what extent are species’ competitive traits able to evolve in response to resource limitation? To address this knowledge gap, we performed an evolution experiment in which we exposed Chlamydomonas reinhardtii for approximately 285 generations to seven environments in chemostats that differed in resource supply ratios (including nitrogen, phosphorus and light limitation) and salt stress. We then grew the ancestors and descendants in a common garden and quantified their competitive abilities for essential resources. We investigated constraints on trait evolution by testing whether changes in resource requirements for different resources were correlated. Competitive abilities for phosphorus improved in all populations, while competitive abilities for nitrogen and light increased in some populations and decreased in others. In contrast to the common assumption that there are trade-offs between competitive abilities for different resources, we found that improvements in competitive ability for a resource came at no detectable cost. Instead, improvements in competitive ability for multiple resources were either positively correlated or not significantly correlated. Using resource competition theory, we then demonstrated that rapid adaptation in competitive traits altered the predicted outcomes of competition. These results highlight the need to incorporate contemporary evolutionary change into predictions of competitive
community dynamics over environmental gradients. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Conceptual challenges in microbial community ecology’.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20190247
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1798
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Chlamydomonas reinhardtii
  • Coexistence theory
  • Competition
  • Eco-evolutionary dynamics
  • R*
  • Resource competition theory

Cite this