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FEMS Microbiol Ecol. 2008 Apr;64(1):1-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1574-6941.2008.00446.x. Epub 2008 Feb 26.

Limited diffusive fluxes of substrate facilitate coexistence of two competing bacterial strains.

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Institute of Environment and Resources DTU, Technical University of Denmark Lyngby, Denmark.


Soils are known to support a great bacterial diversity down to the millimeter scale, but the mechanisms by which such a large diversity is sustained are largely unknown. A feature of unsaturated soils is that water usually forms thin, poorly-connected films, which limit solute diffusive fluxes. It has been proposed, but never unambiguously experimentally tested, that a low substrate diffusive flux would impact bacterial diversity, by promoting the coexistence between slow-growing bacteria and their potentially faster-growing competitors. We used a simple experimental system, based on a Petri dish and a perforated Teflon membrane to control diffusive fluxes of substrate (benzoate) whilst permitting direct observation of bacterial colonies. The system was inoculated with prescribed strains of Pseudomonas, whose growth was quantified by microscopic monitoring of the fluorescent proteins they produced. We observed that substrate diffusion limitation reduced the growth rate of the otherwise fast-growing Pseudomonas putida KT2440 strain. This strain out-competed Pseudomonas fluorescens F113 in liquid culture, but its competitive advantage was less marked on solid media, and even disappeared under conditions of low substrate diffusion. Low diffusive fluxes of substrate, characteristic of many unsaturated media (e.g. soils, food products), can thus promote bacterial coexistence in a competitive situation between two strains. This mechanism might therefore contribute to maintaining the noncompetitive diversity pattern observed in unsaturated soils.

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