As natural selection acts on individual organisms the evolution of costly cooperation between microorganisms is an intriguing phenomenon. Introduction of spatial structure to privatize exchanged molecules can explain the evolution of cooperation. However, in many natural systems cells can also grow to low cell concentrations in the absence of these exchanged molecules, thus showing “cooperation-independent background growth”. We here serially propagated a synthetic cross-feeding consortium of lactococci in the droplets of a water-in-oil emulsion, essentially mimicking group selection with varying founder population sizes. The results show that when the growth of cheaters completely depends on cooperators, cooperators outcompete cheaters. However, cheaters outcompete cooperators when they can independently grow to only ten percent of the consortium carrying capacity. This result is the consequence of a probabilistic effect, as low founder population sizes in droplets decrease the frequency of cooperator co-localization. Cooperator-enrichment can be recovered by increasing the founder population size in droplets to intermediate values. Together with mathematical modelling our results suggest that co-localization probabilities in a spatially structured environment leave a small window of opportunity for the evolution of cooperation between organisms that do not benefit from their cooperative trait when in isolation or form multispecies aggregates.
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