Stochastic assembly produces heterogeneous communities in the Caenorhabditis elegans intestine

PLoS Biol. 2017 Mar 3;15(3):e2000633. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2000633. eCollection 2017 Mar.


Host-associated bacterial communities vary extensively between individuals, but it can be very difficult to determine the sources of this heterogeneity. Here, we demonstrate that stochastic bacterial community assembly in the Caenorhabditis elegans intestine is sufficient to produce strong interworm heterogeneity in community composition. When worms are fed with two neutrally competing, fluorescently labeled bacterial strains, we observe stochastically driven bimodality in community composition, in which approximately half of the worms are dominated by each bacterial strain. A simple model incorporating stochastic colonization suggests that heterogeneity between worms is driven by the low rate at which bacteria successfully establish new intestinal colonies. We can increase this rate experimentally by feeding worms at high bacterial density; in these conditions, the bimodality disappears. These results demonstrate that demographic noise is a potentially important driver of diversity in bacterial community formation and suggest a role for C. elegans as a model system for ecology of host-associated communities.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / microbiology*
  • Colony Count, Microbial
  • Escherichia coli / physiology*
  • Intestines / microbiology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Species Specificity
  • Stochastic Processes

Grant support

The author(s) received no specific funding for this work.