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Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology
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Microbial communities display alternative stable states in a fluctuating environment


Abreu, C. I. ; Woltz, V. L. A. ; Friedman, J. ; Gore, J. Microbial communities display alternative stable states in a fluctuating environment. PLOS COMPUTATIONAL BIOLOGY 2020, 16.

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Author summary The effect of environmental fluctuations on community structure and function is a fundamental question in ecology. A significant body of work suggests that fluctuations increase diversity due to a variety of proposed mechanisms. In this study, we compare the effects of constant and fluctuating dilution regimes on simple microbial communities with two or three species. We find that in all cases, the outcome in a fluctuating environment is the same as that in a constant environment in which the fluctuations are time-averaged. This surprising result highlights that in some communities, ecological stable states may be predicted by averaging environmental parameters, rather than by the variation itself. The effect of environmental fluctuations is a major question in ecology. While it is widely accepted that fluctuations and other types of disturbances can increase biodiversity, there are fewer examples of other types of outcomes in a fluctuating environment. Here we explore this question with laboratory microcosms, using cocultures of two bacterial species, P. putida and P. veronii. At low dilution rates we observe competitive exclusion of P. veronii, whereas at high dilution rates we observe competitive exclusion of P. putida. When the dilution rate alternates between high and low, we do not observe coexistence between the species, but rather alternative stable states, in which only one species survives and initial species' fractions determine the identity of the surviving species. The Lotka-Volterra model with a fluctuating mortality rate predicts that this outcome is independent of the timing of the fluctuations, and that the time-averaged mortality would also lead to alternative stable states, a prediction that we confirm experimentally. Other pairs of species can coexist in a fluctuating environment, and again consistent with the model we observe coexistence in the time-averaged dilution rate. We find a similar time-averaging result holds in a three-species community, highlighting that simple linear models can in some cases provide powerful insight into how communities will respond to environmental fluctuations.