ISB Scientists Have Discovered When and Why a Microbial Community Might Collapse

March 20, 2017

3 Bullets:

  • It takes too much energy to adapt to frequent environmental changes, which can cause a microbial community to collapse.
  • A microbial community that is inept at regulating its genes, however, is more resilient to frequent environmental changes.
  • ISB researchers developed a framework to quantify microbial community resilience that could be applied to identify environmental tipping points related to climate change and ocean acidification.

Microbial communities are critical to the survival of all ecosystems, from the soil to the oceans to our guts, and are essential to a large number of processes and industries, including fermentation, sewage treatment, bioremediation, and biofuel production. For example, microbial communities directly impact fisheries by playing an essential role in sequestering, mineralizing and recycling more than 60 billion tons of carbon each year. Understanding how microbial communities respond to environmental changes, such as global warming and ocean acidification, and anthropological factors, such as pesticide use and water contamination, will be critical to understanding how ecosystems function and will guide future conservation efforts and industrial research.

Researchers at Institute for Systems Biology have developed a framework for assessing the “health” of a microbial community through a stress test that enables them to ask when and why microbial communities collapse under different environmental conditions. The study, published on March 20, 2017, in the journal Molecular Systems Biology, determined that while microbes are equipped to respond to environmental changes, when pushed to the extreme under rapidly fluctuating conditions, the energetic cost of adapting becomes a burden and is unsustainable, leading to collapse. This framework will be invaluable for observing the behavior of microbial communities under simulations of current and projected environmental conditions, allowing scientists to make predictions about the future of our ecosystems and, more importantly, identify ways to protect those ecosystems.

Title: Mechanism for microbial population collapse in a fluctuating resource environment
Journal: Molecular Systems Biology
Authors: Serdar Turkarslan, Arjun V Raman, Anne W Thompson, Christina E Arens, Mark A Gillespie, Frederick von Netzer, Kristina L Hillesland, Sergey Stolyar, Adrian López García de Lomana, David J Reiss, Drew Gorman-Lewis, Grant M Zane, Jeffrey A Ranish, Judy D Wall, David A Stahl, and Nitin S Baliga

This material by ENIGMA‐Ecosystems and Networks Integrated with Genes and Molecular Assemblies (, a Scientific Focus Area Program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological & Environmental Research under contract number DE‐AC02‐05CH11231. JAR and MAG are supported by National Institute of General Medical Sciences Center for Systems Biology Award Number 2P50 GM076547. We thank Lisa Jones of the Fred Hutch Proteomics Resource for assistance with MS runs.