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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Jul 23;116(30):14852-14861. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1901055116. Epub 2019 Jul 10.

Homeorhesis and ecological succession quantified in synthetic microbial ecosystems.

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Laboratory of Living Matter and Center for Studies of Physics and Biology, The Rockefeller University, New York, NY 10065;
The Simons Center for Systems Biology, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ 08540.


The dynamics of ecological change following a major perturbation, known as succession, are influenced by random processes. Direct quantitation of the degree of contingency in succession requires chronological study of replicate ecosystems. We previously found that population dynamics in carefully controlled, replicated synthetic microbial ecosystems were strongly deterministic over several months. Here, we present simplified, two-species microbial ecosystems consisting of algae and ciliates, imaged in toto at single-cell resolution with fluorescence microscopy over a period of 1 to 2 weeks. To directly study succession in these ecosystems, we deliberately varied the initial cell abundances over replicates and quantified the ensuing dynamics. The distribution of abundance trajectories rapidly converged to a nearly deterministic path, with small fluctuations, despite variations in initial conditions, environmental perturbations, and intrinsic noise, indicative of homeorhesis. Homeorhesis was also observed for certain phenotypic variables, such as partitioning of the ciliates into distinct size classes and clumping of the algae. Although the mechanism of homeorhesis observed in these synthetic ecosystems remains to be elucidated, it is clear that it must emerge from the ways each species controls its own internal states, with respect to a diverse set of environmental conditions and ecological interactions.


contingency and determinism; ecological succession; microbial ecology

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