Environment Constrains Fitness Advantages of Division of Labor in Microbial Consortia Engineered for Metabolite Push or Pull Interactions


Fitness benefits from division of labor are well documented in microbial consortia, but the dependency of the benefits on environmental context is poorly understood. Two synthetic Escherichia coli consortia were built to test the relationships between exchanged organic acid, local environment, and opportunity costs of different metabolic strategies. Opportunity costs quantify benefits not realized due to selecting one phenotype over another. The consortia catabolized glucose and exchanged either acetic or lactic acid to create producer-consumer food webs. The organic acids had different inhibitory properties and different opportunity costs associated with their positions in central metabolism. The exchanged metabolites modulated different consortial dynamics. The acetic acid-exchanging (AAE) consortium had a “push” interaction motif where acetic acid was secreted faster by the producer than the consumer imported it, while the lactic acid-exchanging (LAE) consortium had a “pull” interaction motif where the consumer imported lactic acid at a comparable rate to its production. The LAE consortium outperformed wild-type (WT) batch cultures under the environmental context of weakly buffered conditions, achieving a 55% increase in biomass titer, a 51% increase in biomass per proton yield, an 86% increase in substrate conversion, and the complete elimination of by-product accumulation all relative to the WT. However, the LAE consortium had the trade-off of a 42% lower specific growth rate. The AAE consortium did not outperform the WT in any considered performance metric. Performance advantages of the LAE consortium were sensitive to environment; increasing the medium buffering capacity negated the performance advantages compared to WT.



consortia, division of labor, metabolite inhibition, synthetic ecology


Beck, A. E., Pintar, K., Schepens, D., Schrammeck, A., Johnson, T., Bleem, A., ... & Carlson, R. P. (2022). Environment constrains fitness advantages of division of labor in microbial consortia engineered for metabolite push or pull interactions. Msystems, 7(4), e00051-22.
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