All microorganisms release many metabolites, collectively known as the exometabolome. The resultant multi-way cross-feeding of metabolites among microorganisms distributes resources, thereby increasing total biomass of the microbial community, and promotes the recruitment and persistence of phylogenetically and functionally diverse taxa in microbial communities. Metabolite transfer can also select for evolutionary diversification, yielding multiple closely related but functionally distinct strains. Depending on starting conditions, the evolved strains may be auxotrophs requiring metabolic outputs from producer cells or, alternatively, display loss of complementary reactions in metabolic pathways, with increased metabolic efficiency. Metabolite cross-feeding is widespread in many microbial communities associated with animals and plants, including the animal gut microbiome, and these metabolic interactions can yield products valuable to the host. However, metabolite exchange between pairs of intracellular microbial taxa that share the same host cell or organ can be very limited compared to pairs of free-living microorganisms, perhaps as a consequence of host controls over the metabolic function of intracellular microorganisms. Priorities for future research include the development of tools for improved quantification of metabolite exchange in complex communities and greater integration of the roles of metabolic cross-feeding and other ecological processes, including priority effects and antagonistic interactions, in shaping microbial communities. This article is part of the theme issue 'Conceptual challenges in microbial community ecology'.
Keywords: facilitation; metabolite cross-feeding; microbiome; reciprocity; syntrophy.
Conflict of interest statement
The author has no competing interests.
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