Mechanism for microbial population collapse in a fluctuating resource environment

Mol Syst Biol. 2017 Mar 20;13(3):919. doi: 10.15252/msb.20167058.


Managing trade-offs through gene regulation is believed to confer resilience to a microbial community in a fluctuating resource environment. To investigate this hypothesis, we imposed a fluctuating environment that required the sulfate-reducer Desulfovibrio vulgaris to undergo repeated ecologically relevant shifts between retaining metabolic independence (active capacity for sulfate respiration) and becoming metabolically specialized to a mutualistic association with the hydrogen-consuming Methanococcus maripaludis Strikingly, the microbial community became progressively less proficient at restoring the environmentally relevant physiological state after each perturbation and most cultures collapsed within 3-7 shifts. Counterintuitively, the collapse phenomenon was prevented by a single regulatory mutation. We have characterized the mechanism for collapse by conducting RNA-seq analysis, proteomics, microcalorimetry, and single-cell transcriptome analysis. We demonstrate that the collapse was caused by conditional gene regulation, which drove precipitous decline in intracellular abundance of essential transcripts and proteins, imposing greater energetic burden of regulation to restore function in a fluctuating environment.

Keywords: fluctuating resource environment; microbial population collapse; regulation; resilience; syntrophy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Desulfovibrio vulgaris / genetics
  • Desulfovibrio vulgaris / growth & development*
  • Directed Molecular Evolution
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Methanococcus / genetics
  • Methanococcus / growth & development*
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Phenotype
  • Proteomics
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA
  • Single-Cell Analysis
  • Sulfates / metabolism
  • Systems Biology / methods*


  • Sulfates