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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Jan 8;116(2):379-388. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1811887116. Epub 2018 Dec 28.

Structured environments fundamentally alter dynamics and stability of ecological communities.

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Institute of Molecular Biology, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403.
Materials Science Institute, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403.
Institute of Molecular Biology, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403;
Department of Physics, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403.


The dynamics and stability of ecological communities are intimately linked with the specific interactions-like cooperation or predation-between constituent species. In microbial communities, like those found in soils or the mammalian gut, physical anisotropies produced by fluid flow and chemical gradients impact community structure and ecological dynamics, even in structurally isotropic environments. Although natural communities existing in physically unstructured environments are rare, the role of environmental structure in determining community dynamics and stability remains poorly studied. To address this gap, we used modified Lotka-Volterra simulations of competitive microbial communities to characterize the effects of surface structure on community dynamics. We find that environmental structure has profound effects on communities, in a manner dependent on the specific pattern of interactions between community members. For two mutually competing species, eventual extinction of one competitor is effectively guaranteed in isotropic environments. However, addition of environmental structure enables long-term coexistence of both species via local "pinning" of competition interfaces, even when one species has a significant competitive advantage. In contrast, while three species competing in an intransitive loop (as in a game of rock-paper-scissors) coexist stably in isotropic environments, structural anisotropy disrupts the spatial patterns on which coexistence depends, causing chaotic population fluctuations and subsequent extinction cascades. These results indicate that the stability of microbial communities strongly depends on the structural environment in which they reside. Therefore, a more complete ecological understanding, including effective manipulation and interventions in natural communities of interest, must account for the physical structure of the environment.


anisotropic environments; interaction networks; microbial communities; microbial ecology; reaction−diffusion models

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