Competition, not cooperation, dominates interactions among culturable microbial species

Curr Biol. 2012 Oct 9;22(19):1845-50. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.005. Epub 2012 Sep 6.


Microbial cells secrete numerous enzymes, scavenging molecules, and signals that can promote the growth and survival of other cells around them [1-4]. This observation is consistent with the evolution of cooperation within species [5], and there is now an increasing emphasis on the importance of cooperation between different microbial species [4, 6]. We lack, however, a systematic test of the importance of mutually positive interactions between different species, which is vital for assessing the commonness and importance of cooperative evolution in natural communities. Here, we study the extent of mutually positive interaction among bacterial strains isolated from a common aquatic environment. Using data collected from two independent experiments evaluating community productivity across diversity gradients, we show that (1) in pairwise species combinations, the great majority of interactions are net negative and (2) there is no evidence that strong higher-order positive effects arise when more than two species are mixed together. Our data do not exclude the possibility of positive effects in one direction where one species gains at the expense of another, i.e., predator-prey-like interactions. However, these do not constitute cooperation and our analysis suggests that the typical result of adaptation to other microbial species will be competitive, rather than cooperative, phenotypes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / growth & development
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena*
  • Carbon Dioxide / metabolism
  • Water Microbiology


  • Carbon Dioxide