Extreme sensitivity of fitness to environmental conditions; lessons from #1BigBatch

Kinsler, G., Schmidlin, K., Newell, D., Eder, R., Apodaca, S., Lam, G., Petrov, D., Geiler-Samerotte, K., bioRxiv (2022).
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The phrase “survival of the fittest” has become an iconic descriptor of how natural selection works. And yet, precisely measuring fitness, even for single-celled microbial populations growing in controlled laboratory conditions, remains a challenge. While numerous methods exist to perform these measurements, including recently developed methods utilizing DNA barcoding, all methods seem limited in their precision to differentiate strains with small fitness differences. This limit on precision is relevant in many fields, including the field of experimental evolution. In this study, we hone in on the factors that contribute to noisy fitness measurements and suggest solutions to avoid certain sources of noise. Surprisingly, even when common sources of technical noise are controlled for, we find that fitness measurements are still very noisy. Our data suggest that subtle environmental differences among replicates create substantial variation across fitness measurements. We conclude by providing best practices for obtaining precise fitness measurements and by discussing how these measurements should be interpreted given their extreme context dependence. This work was inspired by the scientific community who followed us and gave us tips as we live-tweeted a high-replicate fitness measurement experiment at #1BigBatch.