Social Evolution in Microbial Communities
Our group focuses on studying social interactions in microbial communities and how they evolve. We follow an interdisciplinary approach where we quantify and characterise interactions within small bacterial communities in the lab, and then use computational and mathematical models to explain and predict how these interactions will change over ecological and evolutionary time-scales.
Many bacteria live at high density in complex communities containing members of the same and different species. Within these communities, bacterial cells can strongly affect the growth and survival of neighbouring cells, which are social traits in an evolutionary sense. For example, microbes secrete compounds that promote the growth of neighbouring cells, such as enzymes that break down complex proteins into nutrient sources. Other secretions, such as toxins, inhibit the growth of surrounding cells.
We are developing the necessary theoretical and empirical tools to study these social interactions, and to use this understanding to control microbial communities. In the lab, we are currently disentangling the interactions within a five-species microbial community designed to digest toxic chemicals, which are used in large manufacturing facilities and later disposed to landfill. Understanding this comparatively simple microbial ecosystem will aid in studying more complex microbial communities in the future, with many important applications such as the control of microbial infections in humans, the engineering of fertilisers to increase crop efficiency and the purification of contaminated soil.
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