Metabolic specialization and the assembly of microbial communities

ISME J. 2012 Nov;6(11):1985-91. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2012.46. Epub 2012 May 17.


Metabolic specialization is a general biological principle that shapes the assembly of microbial communities. Individual cell types rarely metabolize a wide range of substrates within their environment. Instead, different cell types often specialize at metabolizing only subsets of the available substrates. What is the advantage of metabolizing subsets of the available substrates rather than all of them? In this perspective piece, we argue that biochemical conflicts between different metabolic processes can promote metabolic specialization and that a better understanding of these conflicts is therefore important for revealing the general principles and rules that govern the assembly of microbial communities. We first discuss three types of biochemical conflicts that could promote metabolic specialization. Next, we demonstrate how knowledge about the consequences of biochemical conflicts can be used to predict whether different metabolic processes are likely to be performed by the same cell type or by different cell types. We then discuss the major challenges in identifying and assessing biochemical conflicts between different metabolic processes and propose several approaches for their measurement. Finally, we argue that a deeper understanding of the biochemical causes of metabolic specialization could serve as a foundation for the field of synthetic ecology, where the objective would be to rationally engineer the assembly of a microbial community to perform a desired biotransformation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / classification
  • Bacteria / enzymology
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Ecosystem
  • Environmental Microbiology*
  • Humans