Optimal Foraging By Bacteriophages Through Host Avoidance
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Optimal foraging theory explains diet restriction as an adaptation to best utilize an array of foods differing in quality, the poorest items not worth the lost opportunity of finding better ones. Although optimal foraging has traditionally been applied to animal behavior, the model is easily applied to viral host range, which is genetically determined. The usual perspective for bacteriophages ( bacterial viruses) is that expanding host range is always advantageous if fitness on former hosts is not compromised. However, foraging theory identifies conditions favoring avoidance of poor hosts even if larger host ranges have no intrinsic costs. Bacteriophage T7 rapidly evolved to discriminate among different Escherichia coli strains when one host strain was engineered to kill infecting phages but the other remained productive. After modifying bacteria to yield more subtle fitness effects on T7, we tested qualitative predictions of optimal foraging theory by competing broad and narrow host range phages against each other. Consistent with the foraging model, diet restriction was favored when good hosts were common or there was a large difference in host quality. Contrary to the model, the direction of selection was affected by the density of poor hosts because being able to discriminate was costly.