Short-range interactions govern the dynamics and functions of microbial communities.


Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland. [Email]


Communities of interacting microorganisms play important roles across all habitats on Earth. These communities typically consist of a large number of species that perform different metabolic processes. The functions of microbial communities ultimately emerge from interactions between these different microorganisms. To understand the dynamics and functions of microbial communities, we thus need to know the nature and strength of these interactions. Here, we quantified the interaction strength between individual cells in microbial communities. We worked with synthetic communities of Escherichia coli bacteria that exchange metabolites to grow. We combined single-cell growth rate measurements with mathematical modelling to quantify metabolic interactions between individual cells and to map the spatial interaction network in these communities. We found that cells only interact with other cells in their immediate neighbourhood. This short interaction range limits the coupling between different species and reduces their ability to perform metabolic processes collectively. Our experiments and models demonstrate that the spatial scale of biotic interaction plays a fundamental role in shaping the ecological dynamics of communities and the functioning of ecosystems.

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