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FEMS Microbiol Rev. 2013 May;37(3):384-406. doi: 10.1111/1574-6976.12019.

Microbial syntrophy: interaction for the common good.

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Microbiology, Institute for Biology II, University of Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany.


Classical definitions of syntrophy focus on a process, performed through metabolic interaction between dependent microbial partners, such as the degradation of complex organic compounds under anoxic conditions. However, examples from past and current scientific discoveries suggest that a new, simple but wider definition is necessary to cover all aspects of microbial syntrophy. We suggest the term 'obligately mutualistic metabolism', which still focuses on microbial metabolic cooperation but also includes an ecological aspect: the benefit for both partners. By the combined metabolic activity of microorganisms, endergonic reactions can become exergonic through the efficient removal of products and therefore enable a microbial community to survive with minimal energy resources. Here, we explain the principles of classical and non-classical syntrophy and illustrate the concepts with various examples. We present biochemical fundamentals that allow microorganism to survive under a range of environmental conditions and to drive important biogeochemical processes. Novel technologies have contributed to the understanding of syntrophic relationships in cultured and uncultured systems. Recent research highlights that obligately mutualistic metabolism is not limited to certain metabolic pathways nor to certain environments or microorganisms. This beneficial microbial interaction is not restricted to the transfer of reducing agents such as hydrogen or formate, but can also involve the exchange of organic, sulfurous- and nitrogenous compounds or the removal of toxic compounds.

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