Alexander van Oudenaarden - Allen Family Foundation grants Gore 1.5 million for research

Denis Paiste
March 5, 2013

MIT Assistant Professor of Physics Jeff Gore is getting a $1.5 million award to conduct research into the evolutionary origins of cooperation by applying game theory to how single-celled yeast make decisions about consuming and sharing sugar, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation announced recently.

Four other researchers from Stanford, Yale, the University of California-San Diego and the University of California-San Francisco also received Allen Distinguished Investigator awards, competitive three-year grants designed to support innovative research that typically does not receive support from traditional sources. The researchers will work on cellular decision making and modeling dynamic biological systems.

“It’s really exciting to get such innovative ideas for such early stage research and we are anticipating great things to come from this,” said Kathy Richmond, senior program officer for the Allen Foundation.

Gore’s project, “Microbial studies of cellular decision-making: game theory and the evolutionary origins of cooperation,” will apply game theory to analysis of sugar consumption among yeast as a model biological system.

The work will examine probabilistic or mixed strategies among yeast and the evolution of cooperative behaviors in the consumption of two different sugars, galactose and glucose. “Even genetically identical cells placed in some environment will often not all do the same thing,” Gore said. In particular, some will turn on a particular gene while others will not.

“From our standpoint, we really use these laboratory microbial populations to try and get insight into some of these bigger ideas, but I think that there is really kind of feedback in both directions. We really want a better understanding both of microbes but also as we do this, we hope that some of the phenomena that are common in microbes may also end up being true in animal populations and maybe even human populations,” Gore said.

The Allen Award will be managed by the Department of Physics; Gore’s prior research funded by the National Institutes of Health was managed by the Materials Processing Center at MIT.

The Gore Lab team includes graduate student David Healey, lead researcher on the mixed-strategy; graduate student Hasan Celiker, for the work on the evolution of cooperation and ecological factors; postdoctoral associate Alvaro Sanchez; and Pappalardo Postdoctoral Fellow Kiril Korolev, who will be leading a range expansion study. “It’s really quite an interdisciplinary team and that’s one of the things that’s fun about this area,” Gore said.

Gore studied the cheater dynamic as a postdoctoral associate at MIT under Professor Alexander van Oudenaarden using yeast sucrose metabolism as a model system to understand the evolution of cooperation and cheating. “The basic question is how a population, which is collectively doing something, enforce that state of cooperation. It may be the case that cheater strategies, that is, individuals that don’t fully contribute to the public good, they may have an advantage relative to those cooperator individuals and the cheater may then be able to spread throughout the population in particular genetically,” Gore said.

“If the cheater is able to have more offspring than the cooperators, then that cheater genotype, or phenotype, spreads throughout the population and this leads to a loss of cooperation at the level of the population,” he said.

“In the original Nature paper in 2009, what I found was that the cooperators and the cheaters coexisted. So the cheaters could spread in the population of cooperatives but they didn’t drive the cooperators extinct. What we found is that’s because the cooperators keep some of the public goods that they create. They eat just 1 percent of the sugar they create before they share it and that small preferential access allows them to survive in the presence of the cheaters. That’s going to be a very common rule for how cooperation can be favored, by just keeping a little bit of the benefits, it can make a qualitative difference. It can transform the situation from where the cooperators would be wiped out to a case where you at least get survival of both cooperators and cheaters,” Gore said.