A synthetic ecology perspective: How well does behavior of model organisms in the laboratory predict microbial activities in natural habitats?


In this perspective article, we question how well model organisms, the ones that are easy to cultivate in the laboratory and that show robust growth and biomass accumulation, reflect the dynamics and interactions of microbial communities observed in nature. Today’s -omics toolbox allows assessing the genomic potential of microbes in natural environments in a high-throughput fashion and at a strain-level resolution. However, understanding of the details of microbial activities and of the mechanistic bases of community function still requires experimental validation in simplified and fully controlled systems such as synthetic communities. We have studied methane utilization in Lake Washington sediment for a few decades and have identified a number of species genetically equipped for this activity. We have also identified co-occurring satellite species that appear to form functional communities together with the methanotrophs. Here, we compare experimental findings from manipulation of natural communities involved in metabolism of methane in this niche with findings from manipulation of synthetic communities assembled in the laboratory of species originating from the same study site, from very simple (two-species) to rather complex (50-species) synthetic communities. We observe some common trends in community dynamics between the two types of communities, toward representation of specific functional guilds. However, we also identify strong discrepancies between the dominant methane oxidizers in synthetic communities compared to natural communities, under similar incubation conditions. These findings highlight the challenges that exist in using the synthetic community approach to modeling dynamics and species interactions in natural communities. © 2016 Yu, Krause, Beck and Chistoserdova.

Frontiers in Microbiology, (7), JUN, https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2016.00946