Overflow metabolism is ubiquitous in nature, and it is often considered inefficient because it leads to a relatively low biomass yield per consumed carbon. This metabolic strategy has been described as advantageous because it supports high growth rates during nutrient competition. Here we experimentally evolved bacteria without nutrient competition by repeatedly growing and mixing millions of parallel batch cultures of E. coli. Each culture originated from a water-in-oil emulsion droplet seeded with a single cell. Unexpectedly we found that overflow metabolism (acetate production) did not change. Instead the numerical cell yield during the consumption of the accumulated acetate increased as a consequence of a reduction in cell size. Our experiments and a mathematical model show that fast growth and overflow metabolism followed by the consumption of the overflow metabolite, leads to a higher numerical cell yield and therefore a higher fitness compared to full respiration of the substrate. This provides an evolutionary scenario where overflow metabolism can be favourable even in the absence of nutrient competition.
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