The Ecology and Evolution of Microbial Competition

Trends Microbiol. 2016 Oct;24(10):833-845. doi: 10.1016/j.tim.2016.06.011. Epub 2016 Aug 18.


Microbes are typically surrounded by different strains and species with whom they compete for scarce nutrients and limited space. Given such challenging living conditions, microbes have evolved many phenotypes with which they can outcompete and displace their neighbours: secretions to harvest resources, loss of costly genes whose products can be obtained from others, stabbing and poisoning neighbouring cells, or colonising spaces while preventing others from doing so. These competitive phenotypes appear to be common, although evidence suggests that, over time, competition dies down locally, often leading to stable coexistence of genetically distinct lineages. Nevertheless, the selective forces acting on competition and the resulting evolutionary fates of the different players depend on ecological conditions in a way that is not yet well understood. Here, we highlight open questions and theoretical predictions of the long-term dynamics of competition that remain to be tested. Establishing a clearer understanding of microbial competition will allow us to better predict the behaviour of microbes, and to control and manipulate microbial communities for industrial, environmental, and medical purposes.

Keywords: bacteria; communities; exploitative competition; interference competition; social evolution..

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • Ecosystem
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Microbial Consortia / physiology*
  • Microbial Interactions*
  • Phenotype
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / metabolism
  • Species Specificity