Microbial interactions and the role of environmental stress in natural and synthetic consortia
Beck, Ashley Esther
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Microbial communities are critical underpinnings of most natural processes, e.g. biogeochemical cycling, and can also be harnessed and engineered for a variety of industrial applications. Despite the abundance of detailed physiological characterization of many individual microorganisms, as well as large data sets describing microbial community composition, the area of interspecies interactions requires further research to truly appreciate and harness the potential of microbial capabilities. Using a combination of in silico metabolic modeling and in vitro laboratory approaches linked to guiding ecological theories, this dissertation investigates metabolite exchange as a mechanism of interspecies interactions and focuses on the role of environmental stress in mediating interactions. A stoichiometric metabolic network model was constructed for the thermophilic cyanobacterium Thermosynechococcus elongatus BP-1 and was analyzed with elementary flux mode analysis to predict metabolic acclimations to light and oxygen, two common environmental stressors in photoautotrophic habitats. High stress levels were predicted to activate organic byproduct secretion pathways, which opens a niche to support growth of heterotrophic partners. To further investigate metabolite exchange in the laboratory, synthetic consortia were designed through genetic engineering and pairing of Escherichia coli strains to form metabolically partitioned organic acid cross-feeding systems. These controlled systems were used to investigate the impact of division of labor as well as the effect of byproduct detoxification. Kinetic data from these systems were also applied to interpret ecological theories regarding microbial community structure. Altogether, these studies demonstrate an integrated approach to studying microbial community interactions by combining in silico metabolic modeling and in vitro laboratory experiments with ecological theory as a basis for interpretation. This dissertation provides insight into rationale for microbial community structure and highlights the role of environmental stress, particularly byproduct inhibition, in driving microbial consortia interactions.