Strategic investment explains patterns of cooperation and cheating in a microbe

Philip G. Madgwick, Balint Stewart, Laurence J. Belcher, Christopher R.L. Thompson, Jason B. Wolf

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Contributing to cooperation is typically costly, while its rewards are often available to all members of a social group. So why should individuals be willing to pay these costs, especially if they could cheat by exploiting the investments of others? Kin selection theory broadly predicts that individuals should invest more into cooperation if their relatedness to group members is high (assuming they can discriminate kin from nonkin). To better understand how relatedness affects cooperation, we derived the ‟Collective Investment” game, which provides quantitative predictions for patterns of strategic investment depending on the level of relatedness. We then tested these predictions by experimentally manipulating relatedness (genotype frequencies) in mixed cooperative aggregations of the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum, which builds a stalk to facilitate spore dispersal. Measurements of stalk investment by natural strains correspond to the predicted patterns of relatedness-dependent strategic investment, wherein investment by a strain increases with its relatedness to the group. Furthermore, if overall group relatedness is relatively low (i.e., no strain is at high frequency in a group) strains face a scenario akin to the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” and suffer from insufficient collective investment. We find that strains employ relatedness-dependent segregation to avoid these pernicious conditions. These findings demonstrate that simple organisms like D. discoideum are not restricted to being ‟cheaters” or ‟cooperators” but instead measure their relatedness to their group and strategically modulate their investment into cooperation accordingly. Consequently, all individuals will sometimes appear to cooperate and sometimes cheat due to the dynamics of strategic investing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E4823-E4832
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number21
Early online date7 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - 22 May 2018


  • Cheating
  • Conflict
  • Cooperation
  • Game theory
  • Kin selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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