Certain bacterial species produce antimicrobial compounds only in the presence of a competing species. However, little is known on the frequency of interaction-mediated induction of antibiotic compound production in natural communities of soil bacteria. Here we developed a high-throughput method to screen for the production of antimicrobial activity by monocultures and pair-wise combinations of 146 phylogenetically different bacteria isolated from similar soil habitats. Growth responses of two human pathogenic model organisms, Escherichia coli WA321 and Staphylococcus aureus 533R4, were used to monitor antimicrobial activity. From all isolates, 33% showed antimicrobial activity only in monoculture and 42% showed activity only when tested in interactions. More bacterial isolates were active against S. aureus than against E. coli. The frequency of interaction-mediated induction of antimicrobial activity was 6% (154 interactions out of 2798) indicating that only a limited set of species combinations showed such activity. The screening revealed also interaction-mediated suppression of antimicrobial activity for 22% of all combinations tested. Whereas all patterns of antimicrobial activity (non-induced production, induced production and suppression) were seen for various bacterial classes, interaction-mediated induction of antimicrobial activity was more frequent for combinations of Flavobacteria and alpha- Proteobacteria. The results of our study give a first indication on the frequency of interference competitive interactions in natural soil bacterial communities which may forms a basis for selection of bacterial groups that are promising for the discovery of novel, cryptic antibiotics.
Keywords: antibiotic discovery; antimicrobial activity; high-throughput-screening; inter-specific interactions; soil bacteria.