Some are more equal than others: the role of "keystone" species in the degradation of recalcitrant substrates

Gut Microbes. 2013 May-Jun;4(3):236-40. doi: 10.4161/gmic.23998. Epub 2013 Apr 2.


The microbial communities found in the mammalian large intestine and rumen efficiently degrade many recalcitrant substrates that are resistant to the host's digestive enzymes. These communities are known from molecular profiling to be highly diverse at the species and strain level, but it may be that only certain specialized organisms ("keystone species") have the ability to initiate degradation of such substrates, thus releasing energy on which the rest of the community depends. We have recently reported that Ruminococcus bromii has a superior ability to degrade certain forms of particulate resistant starch (RS) when compared with other highly abundant species of amylolytic bacteria found in the human colon and have presented evidence that this bacterium provides an example of a keystone species within the microbial community with respect to RS fermentation. The concept of keystone species can be equally relevant to other activities, e.g., those involved in stabilizing the community.

Keywords: anaerobic bacteria; cross-feeding; human colon; keystone species; microbial consortia; microbiota; resistant starch.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Colon / microbiology*
  • Humans
  • Hydrolysis
  • Ruminococcus / metabolism*
  • Starch / metabolism*


  • Starch