Microbial mutualism dynamics governed by dose-dependent toxicity of cross-fed nutrients

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ISME Journal


Microbial interactions, including mutualistic nutrient exchange (cross-feeding), underpin the flow of energy and materials in all ecosystems. Metabolic exchanges are difficult to assess within natural systems. As such, the impact of exchange levels on ecosystem dynamics and function remains unclear. To assess how cross-feeding levels govern mutualism behavior, we developed a bacterial coculture amenable to both modeling and experimental manipulation. In this coculture, which resembles an anaerobic food web, fermentative Escherichia coli and photoheterotrophic Rhodopseudomonas palustris obligately cross-feed carbon (organic acids) and nitrogen (ammonium). This reciprocal exchange enforced immediate stable coexistence and coupled species growth. Genetic engineering of R. palustris to increase ammonium cross-feeding elicited increased reciprocal organic acid production from E. coli, resulting in culture acidification. Consequently, organic acid function shifted from that of a nutrient to an inhibitor, ultimately biasing species ratios and decreasing carbon transformation efficiency by the community; nonetheless, stable coexistence persisted at a new equilibrium. Thus, disrupting the symmetry of nutrient exchange can amplify alternative roles of an exchanged resource and thereby alter community function. These results have implications for our understanding of mutualistic interactions and the use of microbial consortia as biotechnology.


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Bacteriology, Microbial ecology


LaSarre, B, AL McCully, JT Lennon, and JB McKinlay. 2017. Microbial mutualism dynamics governed by dose-dependent toxicity of cross-fed nutrients. ISME J. 11:337–348.

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