1. Computational and Systems Biology
  2. Microbiology and Infectious Disease

Microbial consortia at steady supply

  1. Thibaud Taillefumier
  2. Anna Posfai
  3. Yigal Meir
  4. Ned S Wingreen
  1. Princeton University, United States
  2. The University of Texas at Austin, United States
  3. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel
Research Article


Metagenomics has revealed hundreds of species in almost all microbiota. In a few well-studied cases, microbial communities have been observed to coordinate their metabolic fluxes. In principle, microbes can divide tasks to reap the benefits of specialization, as in human economies. However, the benefits and stability of an economy of microbial specialists are far from obvious. Here, we physically model the population dynamics of microbes that compete for steadily supplied resources. Importantly, we explicitly model the metabolic fluxes yielding cellular biomass production under the constraint of a limited enzyme budget. We find that population dynamics generally leads to the coexistence of different metabolic types. We establish that these microbial consortia act as cartels, whereby population dynamics pins down resource concentrations at values for which no other strategy can invade. Finally, we propose that at steady supply, cartels of competing strategies automatically yield maximum biomass, thereby achieving a collective optimum.


eLife digest

Microbes are found in virtually every environment on Earth. Like other organisms, microbes grow by using enzymes to convert nutrients into proteins, DNA and other molecules that make up their cells. Together, these chemical transformations define the "metabolism" of a microbe.

In any given environment, there is almost always a diverse variety of microbes living together. Different microbes in these communities will use different combinations of enzymes to exploit the available nutrients, and members of well-studied communities have been found to work together to make the most of the nutrient source. This is remarkable because one might expect competition between microbes to select for a single "best" microbe, rather than diverse communities.

The economic concept of "division of labor" suggests that if microbes divide chemical tasks between each other, they will use the available resources more efficiently. The concept provides a possible explanation for metabolic diversity amongst microbes, yet it remains to be shown whether microbial communities actually benefit from a division of labor.

Here, Taillefumier et al. used mathematical models to reveal that even in a uniform environment, metabolic competition generally leads to the steady coexistence of distinct microbes, collectively called a "consortium". In a consortium, distinct microbes organize themselves to create a community-level metabolism that best exploits the nutrients present. The models showed that while growing, a consortium depletes the available pool of nutrients to such low levels that only members of the consortium can survive. The findings suggest that the benefit of metabolic diversity stems from the ability of a consortium to automatically deplete nutrients to levels at which no other microbes can invade.

Taillefumier et al. propose that consortia that arise naturally under conditions where there is a steady supply of nutrients produce the maximum mass of microbes. Future experiments that analyze the impact of fluctuating nutrient supply may help us to understand the benefit of metabolic diversity in real-world microbial communities.