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Plenary Lecture 2: Cooperation and competition in microbial communities

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Understanding Microbial Communities; Function, Structure and Dynamics

Since Darwin, evolutionary biologists have been fascinated by cooperative behavior. Honeybee workers labor their whole life without reproducing, birds make alarm calls, and humans often help one another. One major group that remains relatively unexplored, however, is the microbes whose full spectrum of sociality only recently came to light. Microbes often live in large dense groups where one cell can strongly affect the survival and reproduction of others. But do microbes typically help or harm those around them? We study this question using a diversity of systems, including computer simulations, pseudomonad bacteria and budding yeast. We find that single-genotype patches naturally emerge in microbial groups, which creates favorable conditions for cooperation within a particular genotype. Moreover, some microbes actively adjust both genotypic assortment and investment into social traits in a way that promotes cooperation within a genotype. However, our work on interactions be tween different microbial genotypes suggests that, here, the evolution of competitive phenotypes is more likely than cooperation. This leads us to a simple model the genotypic view that predicts microbes will evolve to help their own genotype but harm most other strains and species that they meet. We are now moving to understand how our understanding of cooperation and competition in microbial communities can contribute to design principles associated with synthetic and natural systems.

This talk is part of the Isaac Newton Institute Seminar Series series.

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