Using microbial consortia may boost success of biotechnologies

March 17, 2016, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
This is a synthetic microbial biofilm community built from a cyanobacterium, Synechococcus PCC 7002 (red), supporting a metabolically engineered “biofuel catalyst” strain of Escherichia coli (blue). PNNL researchers and collaborators examined the state of the science for bioengineering to determine how microbial multi-species consortia can be more successful in developing biotechnologies for renewable energy. Credit: H.C. Bernstein

Around the world, researchers are studying microbes to see if these tiny organisms can be used to solve a host of problems, from cleaning up toxic waste to providing renewable energy. Unfortunately, attempts to develop biotechnologies often fall short because they focus on a limited set of single, highly engineered organisms. Such organisms frequently do not perform as efficiently or stably in an application as they do in the laboratory.

Now, an internationally recognized group of scientists, organized by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory microbiologists Dr. Stephen Lindemann and Dr. Alexander Beliaev, has reviewed the state of the science to determine how biotechnological use of communities of multiple microbes, or microbial consortia, might transcend the limitations of single organisms.

They posit that the time is ripe for design and control of , and that achieving the ability to engineer will require a level of understanding of the mechanisms driving microbial community function only possible from combining recent advances in systems biology, computational modeling, and synthetic biology.

These new perspectives stemmed from a panel at the 15th International Symposium on Microbial Ecology in Seoul and appear in the International Society for Microbial Ecology's (ISME) official publication, the ISME Journal.

Agriculture has long known that monocultures, or growing only one type of crop, can be susceptible to changes in the environment. For example, relatively small or poorly timed changes in rainfall can cause major losses in production for some crops. In contrast, growing several crops with different tolerances to drought might more stably provide food, no matter the weather for a given year. The same principle applies to microbes, which are drivers of global geochemical cycles and catalysts for renewable fuels and chemicals. Microbial communities can prove to be more reliable than engineered "superbugs" and more robust against unpredictable environment than individual microbes. This reliability is the key to using them for industrial purposes.

"The promise that this field has to offer is great," said Beliaev. "Transformative biotechnologies will help overcome the energy, health, and environmental problems of the future, and the process of learning to design and control ecological phenomena has and will undoubtedly continue to yield new insights on the fundamentals of life."

Seven scientists from PNNL, Montana State University, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology brought perspectives from different scientific approaches, research programs, and countries to analyze the state of the science. They used questions posed by experts who attended the ISME symposium to outline key issues.

Drawing on their years of experience and amassed knowledge, the group determined that successful biosystems design is contingent both on the understanding of microbial physiology and accuracy of computational models that describe how organisms interact. An iterative design-build-test approach that can predict interspecies dynamics and analyze energy and material flows in a community will help scientists better understand how these consortia can be used for biotechnologies.

PNNL's microbial research program continues to expand the foundation of biological systems design. Ideally, advances in this field will allow scientists to control safety, productivity, and stability of natural and designed microbial ecosystems.

Explore further: Experts focus on function to develop resilient microbial communities for biotechnologies

More information: Stephen R Lindemann et al. Engineering microbial consortia for controllable outputs, The ISME Journal (2016). DOI: 10.1038/ismej.2016.26

Related Stories

Bacteria's conflicts fuel synthetic ecology research

August 18, 2015

A common characteristic in mixed populations of microbes is that some bacteria, the "cooperators," dominate over others, the "cheaters." Cheaters use resources cooperators make and share. The result? The community suffers ...

Tracking microbial mat formation in Yellowstone

February 11, 2016

Researchers determined the contributions of different microbes toward the establishment of microbial mat communities in the hot and acidic environments of the Yellowstone Hot Springs.

Microbes may not be so adaptable to climate change

March 15, 2016

Microbes in soil - organisms that exert enormous influence over our planet's carbon cycle - may not be as adaptable to climate change as most scientists have presumed, according to a paper published March 2 in PLOS One.

Recommended for you

Study: With Twitter, race of the messenger matters

February 23, 2019

When NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, the ensuing debate took traditional and social media by storm. University of Kansas researchers have ...

After a reset, Сuriosity is operating normally

February 23, 2019

NASA's Curiosity rover is busy making new discoveries on Mars. The rover has been climbing Mount Sharp since 2014 and recently reached a clay region that may offer new clues about the ancient Martian environment's potential ...

Researchers engineer a tougher fiber

February 22, 2019

North Carolina State University researchers have developed a fiber that combines the elasticity of rubber with the strength of a metal, resulting in a tougher material that could be incorporated into soft robotics, packaging ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.